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Album review: Portage (Jean Hewson, Christina Smith, Anne Lederman, Laura Risk & Erynn Marshall)

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Portage. Now there’s a word that evokes the past. It conjures up canoes being paddled into the venerable history of Canada – fur traders, voyageurs, Indigenous peoples, French explorers, lakes, campfires and landscapes from sea to shining sea.

“Portage” is actually the word for overland travel between bodies of water. Imagine a single voyageur carrying the canoe upside-down on his shoulders as he treks up and down narrow rocky trails that connect one lake with another. And imagine too, paddlers turned to porters, hefting heavy boxes and barrels on those same trails, trying not to turn an ankle on the rocks underfoot.

But you can also imagine the campsite after the work is finished. At the end of the day, the sun lowers itself below the horizon, tents are pitched and a campfire is lit. One of the voyageurs brings out a fiddle (such a small, portable instrument!) and begins to play. These are the tunes that exist both in memory and imagination.

And here, on this self-titled CD by Portage, are the tunes. Five of North America’s best female musicians have joined forces to become Portage. Anne Lederman, Erynn Marshall, Laura Risk, and Christina Smith all play fiddle here, with Jean Hewson ably providing guitar accompaniment. All the musicians are Canadian, except for Laura Risk. Laura hails from California but has spent so much time in Québec learning from the great fiddlers of the Gaspé peninsula, that she is surely an honorary Canadian by now.

Cape Breton fiddler Wendy MacIsaac makes a guest appearance here, as does the sole male fiddler, Bryan Poirier, from Moncton. The fantastic sound is rounded out by Christina’s beautiful work on the cello.

The tunes are the sounds of the cultures that made Canada: French, Scottish, Irish, Métis… There are tunes from Cape Breton Island, Gaspé, Manitoba, Newfoundland, The Ozark Mountains, and Acadia (New Brunswick). Many tunes have really long roots in the communities where they were collected and passed down, however, some of the tracks on this recording are brand new, hot off the press originals composed by these fiddling ladies.

It’s all very listenable and fun. Most of the melodies were made for dancing, so you can’t help but get off your butt and move. Play this at home and imagine you’re in a dance hall anywhere along the spine of the great ancient Appalachian mountain range. (It extends from the southern USA up through New England, Quebec, Newfoundland and all the way to Scotland!) You’ll find that you’re grabbing a partner to dance the squares, contras and Scottish country dances.

We have tunes from Douglastown, on the Gaspé Peninsula of Québec; tunes from the heart of Acadia in Rosaireville, New Brunswick; tunes from Ebb and Flow, Manitoba, the heartland of the Métis tradition, and tunes from the Irish tradition of Newfoundland. We also hear the ancient Scottish roots of Missouri, North Carolina, Massachusetts, and Cape Breton. It’s a fiddling world, when you come right down to it. And here, voyages and portages connect us musically from one community to another among and between Canada’s founding cultures. What a grand idea! www.portagefiddle.com

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