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Fiddle me this

“Masters of the Fiddle” Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy combine tradition and passion by going positively ham in performance.
Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy pluck and bow their way through high-energy, dance fueled concerts.
Image by MacMaster and Leahy
Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy pluck and bow their way through high-energy, dance fueled concerts.

Talking to Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy is jarring. They aren’t unfriendly — they’re Canadian — so don’t be mistaken, it’s just that it isn’t every day you see reincarnations of the Partridge family.

MacMaster and Leahy are touring the United States, shredding Celtic tunes on their fiddles. They’re married with five small children who travel and occasionally play alongside them (a violin-wielding David Cassidy, anyone?).

Their adult life isn’t too different from their past, considering they both grew up in musical families that lived in rural communities.

“My parents were farmers,” Leahy said. “As a little one, I’d be falling asleep and my parents would be having a party. My father would get all excited, come in my room, wake me up, and I’d jump out of bed to go downstairs and play the fiddle.”

Leahy and MacMaster grew up in Lakefield, Ontario and Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, respectively. Both of them fondly remember discovering music through these house parties by step dancing with neighbors and picking up instruments for the hell of it.

It’s a little cornballish, but the pair has the chops to pass on their cultural traditions.

 MacMaster said her path to being a professional was gradual, but that’s questionable. She started fiddling at 9, released her first album at 16, got married to Leahy after college and never stopped the music.

“It’s all I’ve ever done, it’s the only job I’ve ever had — if you want to call it a job,” she said.

The duo sizzles when they play their patented repertoire of Celtic classics and flooring, string-soaked original songs. When MacMaster clicks her heels before step dancing — a trademark Cape Breton move her mother taught her — she and Leahy saw at their fiddles and shuffle their feet in sync.

The couple’s musical influence is mostly Celtic, but they incorporate a variety of styles. Whether it’s a Cajun rouser, the complement of a funky drum kit or straight classical tunes, they look for ways to put their stamp on the sound. This usually means social dance footwork with kicks and jigs as well as a few hardy riffs from any accompanists that join them.

In their younger days, MacMaster and Leahy would perform more than 225 shows a year. With five kids and a baby on the way, though, they’ve slowed down.

“I was tired,” MacMaster said. “That’s not something I want to go back to, ever.”

On the other hand, they both said their ever-expanding family keeps the tour going, even with a homeschooling schedule and diaper duty.

 Leahy said the kids exude music, joking that they’re “genetically forced to.” They hold house parties like their parents used to and placed fiddles in their children’s hands at an early age.

“It’s like when a little kid has his own hockey bag and his own stick, and he’s so proud — it’s something that means a lot to them,” Leahy said, reflecting on seeing his kids with instruments of their own.

This is how it’s always been. MacMaster and Leahy have no lofty artistic manifestos — they just enjoy the music.

“I want to be the deliverer of something that makes people happy,” MacMaster said.

Leahy agreed, saying this is what makes their performances honest.

“You can’t fool the audience,” he said. “They can see right through you.”


What: “Masters of the Fiddle: A Cradle of Hope Benefit Concert”

When: 7:30 p.m., Saturday

Where: Ted Mann Concert Hall, 2128 S. Fourth St., Minneapolis

Cost: $15-$100


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