For Canadian musician Natalie MacMaster, the holidays are about singing, dancing and playing the fiddle.
“For me, Christmas is about the house party and traditional songs,” says MacMaster, who grew up on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia.
A fiddle player since age 9, she and her band will perform Thursday at the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda.
About half the program will feature Scottish and Irish tunes and the other half, holiday music, with songs like “Christmas in Killarney,” “Sleigh Ride” and “Silent Night.”
“It’ll be an excellent night with the Christmas spirit and Christmas energy,” she says.
MacMaster says she also will be singing some new songs planned for her next CD, which she plans to record with her husband, Donnell Leahy, who plays the fiddle professionally and travels with his own family band called Leahy.
Parents of five children, she and Leahy live on a farm in Ontario but MacMaster has not lost touch with her island roots in the North Atlantic, traveling to venues in Canada, the U.S. and overseas to perform.
The MacMaster concert is the third in a series of 11 shows at Strathmore called “Storied Strings: The Violin in America.”
The series, which ends in early May, examines the roles that the fiddle and violin have played in jazz, blues, folk, bluegrass, rock and metal music.
Several concerts also feature soloists and string quartets that are experimenting with new music and new ways of playing the violin.
MacMaster says she grew up in a musical family, learning how to play the fiddle from her father and then later taking lessons.
She first played publicly when she was 10 and then later as a teenager at local dances in the close-knit island communities.
“People still do that,” she says. “On Cape Breton Island, the tradition is alive. Six nights a week in the summer there’ll be square dances.”
Emigration from Scotland to Nova Scotia (or New Scotland) began in the late 1700s, with more people coming in the early 1800s as landowners evicted tenant farmers to create large sheep farms.
“They came over from Scotland and didn’t bring much with them, but they had their fiddles [which is how] music took root in new soil,” says MacMaster.
In some ways Cape Breton Island music sounds like other Celtic music but there are subtle differences, she says.
“In Scottish music there’s a lot of cutting of the bow,” says MacMaster about the technique of using the bow to sound three quick notes (called a triplet.)
In Irish music, fiddlers use fingering to create what is called a roll, she says.
“What makes Scottish music different is its groove, the rhythms, the feel, the rawness of it,” she says.
It doesn’t sound like it comes from aristocratic salons or music conservatories or classical violin competitions.
It reflects the island it comes from and the people who live there.
“It’s a hand-me-down tradition passed down very naturally,” MacMaster says.