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Searching for Abegweit

Review by Chris McGarry

Searching for AbegweitOn a Monday evening in July, a capacity crowd gathered at the MacKenzie Theatre to watch Searching for Abegweit: The Island Songs and Stories of Lennie Gallant. In Searching for Abegweit, Juno-nominee Gallant, one of PEI’s favorite sons, weaves a superb, heartfelt narrative of the historical tales of our fair isle through story and song. Against a haunting background featuring the remarkable paintings of Rustico artist, Lennie’s sister, Karen Gallant and the beating of a drum, Gallant spoke to the audience about the origins of the word Abegweit, which the Mi’kmaq peoples called “Cradled on the Waves.” He talked about early French settlement on PEI, particularly in the Rustico area and also about his own Acadian roots. Gallant, who left home after high school to travel across Canada, sang an ode to his hometown entitled “Going Back to Rustico” while pictures of the picturesque fishing community were shown on the screen.

As the evening went on, Gallant, a master showman whose knowledge of Island culture and heritage is impeccable, told the audience, many of whom were visiting PEI, about the significance that the railroad once held for Island communities. He also talked about another remnant from our province’s past—the country store. But what was probably the most interesting story of the evening was Gallant’s retelling of the journey of Scottish settlers who, after a long arduous sea voyage, made their home in Lord Selkirk’s Land, now Belfast.

While a tartan flew prominently on the screen, Gallant, along with nephews Jonathan and Jeremy Gallant on piano and drums/percussion, Sean Kemp on violin and Caroline Bernard on accordion, sang a stirring rendition of what has become one of the famous artist’s most noteworthy songs, “Tales of the Phantom Ship.” A local legend claims that the subject of the song is a Scottish ship that went down in a gale, killing everyone aboard while another says it is a British war vessel cursed by an Acadian witch.

Watching Searching for Abegweit, one quickly becomes immersed in the rich cultural heritage that has forged Prince Edward Island’s uniqueness in the world. Gallant’s wonderfully crafted stories are interlaced with several of his popular hand-clapping, toe-happy lively numbers but also emotive songs such as “Peter’s Dream” and “Which Way Does the River Run.”

Every world-famous aspect of PEI is touched on in this amazing presentation; the Island’s red clay, clam digging, swimming in our beaches on a hot summer’s day, the often long, harsh winters we endure as well as the Island’s hockey culture, which Gallant pays homage to in “Has Anybody Seen My Skates?” There’s even a tribute to the Prohibition era on PEI in “Nellie J. Banks.” 

Through song, story, artwork, new and old black-and-white photos and video, Gallant emphasizes that throughout its storied history, PEI has always been a place of refuge; for the early Mi’kmaq, French, Scottish and Irish settlers to the Lebanese and people from all over the world who continue to make Abegweit their home to this day.

Searching for Abegweit, directed by Jac Gautreau, plays at The Mack until August 29.

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