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    Fiddles and Family

    Celtic music's power couple Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy keep faith as their centre. October 17, 2018 by Kristin Ostensen
    Filed Under:
    Faith & Friends
    Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy married in 2002 and released their first album together in 2015
    When world-renowned fiddler Natalie MacMaster picks up the phone at her home in Lakefield, Ont., there’s a gentle roar in the background—the sounds of a busy family having a typical Monday morning on the farm.

    “I think Donnell’s let the lions out of their cages,” she says with a laugh. “The kids were practising their music just a moment ago.”

    Music touches every part of her family’s life, and it always has. Natalie learned to step dance at five and started fiddle lessons at nine, while her husband, Donnell Leahy, was fiddling at just three years old. Today, they are Celtic music’s power couple with dozens of awards, top-selling albums and accolades between them—including an Order of Canada membership for Natalie.

    Not bad for a small-town girl who originally planned to become a teacher.

    “I never set out to become a fiddler,” says Natalie, “but I think you have to be flexible. If you follow your dreams too much, you might miss out on what the Lord has planned for you.”

    A Way of Life
    Born and raised on Cape Breton Island, N.S., Natalie’s love of fiddle music began with her parents, Alex and Minnie, who introduced her to the island’s signature Celtic style.

    Natalie and Donnell often write and arrange their own music.Natalie and Donnell often write and arrange their own music. “That makes us sound united,” she says. “It’s not just two fiddlers going; it’s arranged so that you hear the separate personalities” (Photos: Rebekah Littlejohn)
    “We went to many local events that featured the traditional music, such as square dances and concerts, and my mother was always playing records and cassette tapes,” Natalie says. “Most of these tapes were from house parties, recorded on the spot with a home recorder, and then the tapes would circulate Cape Breton. They were my biggest influence.”

    Her first violin was a gift from a relative. “That’s what got me started and it just took off from there,” says Natalie, who released her first album, Four on the Floor, when she was 16.

    Donnell had a similar experience growing up in Lakefield. “Music was a way of life,” he shares. “Mom and Dad had a band, so they would work all week on the farm, and on weekends, they’d play at weddings and dances. I suppose I just wanted to be like them.”

    As Donnell and his siblings learned to fiddle, they started playing at their parents’ gigs. “Over time, we got to be a bigger part of what Mom and Dad did,” Donnell says, “to the point where they stopped coming with us.”

    In the early 1980s, the children formed a band, aptly called The Leahy Family, and started touring across Canada and internationally. Before Donnell realized it, fiddling had become a career.

    A Good Path
    While music was central to family life for both Natalie and Donnell, the only thing that was even more important was their Christian faith.

    “My parents had charitable hearts,” says Natalie, who was raised in a Catholic home. “They were naturally giving of themselves, at any time of day, for anyone.”

    Her parents’ example of faith in action included preparing meals for people in need on special occasions, such as Christmas and Easter. “Mom always involved me in that—baking the food and bringing it to them—and I always remember those
    things,” Natalie says.
    “There are decisions to be made every day, and God is involved in all of them.”—Natalie MacMaster
    At the same time, Natalie’s father impressed upon her the importance of attending church regularly. “So even when I was travelling, I never missed a service. I think that’s what kept me on a good path, because Lord knows there were lots of side roads I could have taken!

    “And then at some point in my late teens, early 20s, I really became on fire with my own faith,” she continues. “It transitioned from me being obedient to me seeing the value in loving it and wanting to nurture it.”

    As with Natalie, Donnell’s faith was deeply influenced by his family. “Mom and Dad were full of faith and loved God, and my uncle, Father Leo Leahy, was the parish priest in Lakefield,” he says. “As a family growing up, going to church was the most important thing—and it still is for us.”

    Faith First
    Now parents themselves, Natalie and Donnell are passing on their faith to their seven children. “It’s the base of everything we do,” says Donnell.

    Throughout her career, Natalie has collaborated with many musicians, including Alison Krauss, Yo-Yo Ma and Bobby McFerrinThroughout her career, Natalie has collaborated with many musicians, including Alison Krauss, Yo-Yo Ma and Bobby McFerrin
    Natalie agrees. “There are decisions to be made every day, and God is involved in all of them.”

    Of course, that doesn’t mean their life is all solemn and serious. “We want our kids to have fun,” Natalie smiles. “I believe God wants us to live a joyful life, so we’re not sitting here praying all the time, but when we pray, they never say, ‘Do we have to?’ They all seem to have their own personalized version of their faith.”

    Even when they’re on the road, church attendance is a priority. “We love playing music and our whole life is based around it,” says Donnell, “but when we travel, part of our tour manager’s responsibility is to find us a mass on Saturday or Sunday. The way we see it, travelling is part of our thing, but our faith is our thing.”

    Family Traditions
    To their children, Natalie and Donnell are not just parents but also music teachers, and the kids have been enthusiastic students. All but the youngest—who is only six months old—have picked up the bow.

    Natalie, Donnell and their children will perform A Celtic Family Christmas across Canada in November and DecemberNatalie, Donnell and their children will perform A Celtic Family Christmas across Canada in November and December
    This November and December, the children will join Natalie and Donnell on stage as they tour across Canada performing A Celtic Family Christmas.

    As Donnell explains, this concert represents all the joys of Christmas they experienced growing up and the traditions they continue to enjoy today.

    “Rural Ontario and Cape Breton are pretty harsh in the wintertime, so music was more than something you enjoyed, it was something you needed,” he says. “You needed your neighbour to drop in, have a hot tea, and get away from the dark and the cold. The fireplaces were in the kitchen, so people would be hovering there where it was warm, and eventually a fiddle would come out. That’s what our show is—it’s a family celebrating the traditions of Christmas.”

    For more information about A Celtic Family Christmas and to buy tickets, visit natalieanddonnell.com/tours.

    Comment

    On Thursday, October 25, 2018, Ron West said:

    Have been a long time fan of Natalie's. The compassion and wonderful gift she gave to my friend Mary Jane in her last days was so wonderful and touched our whole community. What a wonderful person she is and an inspiration to all. I know the warmth extends to the whole family. Blessings!

     

    On Wednesday, October 24, 2018, Silvano Gomes said:

    Loved seeing and hearing you and your 2 pretty girls at a Celtic Colour 2018 Festival earlier this month

     

    On Wednesday, October 24, 2018, Barb Cameron said:

    Greetings from Port Hood so nice to read such an honest and heart-warming account of your lives. Keep the music flowing. You two and your awesome family help make the world a better place.

     

    On Wednesday, October 24, 2018, Kathleen Morrison said:

    Faith and Music what more do you need......Nothing !

     

    On Tuesday, October 23, 2018, Janette gillis said:

    Love this family sooo much, talented, faith, personality, they have it all๐Ÿ’“๐Ÿ’

     

    On Tuesday, October 23, 2018, David B. Howley said:

    An excellent example of following your God given talents and staying grounded to what really matters in life. Thanks for sharing.

     

    On Tuesday, October 23, 2018, Sharon-Avery Boegel. Windsor N.S. said:

    What a great family, 7 children, like days of old!

     

    On Tuesday, October 23, 2018, Helen Edgar said:

    So happy for you and your husband and family. I remember hosting you Tracey and Rita.. re e bar the eltricity was off, so no showers etc keep on enjoying you journey and God blesses all of you.

     

    On Tuesday, October 23, 2018, Deanna Webber said:

    Such a lovely family.No wonder coming from Cape Breton and Donnell's mom from Broad Cove.what more would you want?

     

    On Tuesday, October 23, 2018, Janet Wheeler Stundon said:

    Wonderful musical family lovely to see and enjoy..deeply committed to their children and their faith....wishing you much success..

     

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