Profile by Jane Ledwell
What makes the Maritimes unique? According to the new organization CLEF, the Celtic Learning and Education Foundation, it’s the living tradition of Celtic music and culture that enlivens the community from the kitchen party to the ceilidh.
As co-founder, fiddler Sheila FitzPatrick expresses it, “CLEF wants to make sure every generation gets exposure to traditional music. For the former generation, that was their music. Today’s generation doesn’t have the same opportunity to be exposed to it. We want to make it part of everyone’s everyday life.”
Sheila says, “I like other kinds of music too, but the unique thing that has propelled us forward in the Maritimes is keeping the Celtic tradition alive.” The founders of CLEF, traditional music players like Sheila, came together after the ECMAs in Charlottetown, where they perceived a major decline in the focus on Celtic music.
So CLEF’s founders decided, “If the ECMAs are not gonna do it, someone’s gotta do it.” They incorporated their foundation last September and began hosting events, building excitement, and raising funds.
CLEF’s current focus is exposing youth to traditional music. Sheila is quick to say that CLEF’s work is not a lament. “Traditional music is not dying,” she says. “There are young people getting involved in music and dance. But they still need audiences, too. We need to create a generation of people who go to these events.”
Sheila and CLEF have been approaching schools and youth groups to talk about programming opportunities, whether that’s a traditional musician for an assembly, a lunchtime cafeteria ceilidh, all-ages connections of grandparents and youth, dance lessons in phys ed, PEI and Celtic history in the classroom, or making bannock in home ec. “We want to show another way of engaging in society and the community… That’s what a tradition is—it’s there for every generation.
“We want to make Celtic music and culture front and centre to draw people to PEI and the Maritimes.” And, she says, it has to be a regional approach. “Cape Breton is known as the epicentre for all things Celtic,” she notes appreciatively, but the loss of population there threatens the continuity of tradition of both players and audiences. This is what CLEF will work against.
Sheila has also jumped feet-first into active support for community development by getting elected as a town councillor for Montague. “A municipality has the ability to set the tone for priorities,” she says, and she wants Montague to build on arts and culture. “You need to recognize the assets you already have,” she says.
Now that she is in local politics, her hope is “to get the town to a place where we’re rid of the small-town politics, where we work together on everything… I want to encourage younger people in councils. I know it’s a different world, and people are very busy… But if you commit to it, it happens. You find the time.”
Sheila’s other commitments include the group Treble with Girls, which, she notes, “is not just a Celtic group… There’s more variety of music, and I’m singing harmony more. It’s a good break from fiddle!” She still fills in with Fiddlers’ Sons “very often.”
She lives out her commitments as a mom. “My girls are three and six (almost four and seven), and… We take them to everything we can,” whether that’s sitting in on dance classes or sitting in the audience at performances. “It doesn’t need to be a public ceilidh—it’s at home.”
Her son Matthew is now 19, and as he was growing up Sheila dragged him around—and even on-stage. “I was always scared to push too much or not enough,” she says, but the youthful exposure she is working so hard to provide to Islanders through CLEF has paid off in her own family, in small ways—even if it’s just recognizing a fiddle tune as one that mom played. Sheila says her son’s iPod “is not standard for a 19 year old. And I’m happy with that. You don’t need everyone to be a fiddle player or a dancer,” though a community full of fiddlers would be no failure.