Mi’kmaq fiddler Morgan Toney’s debut album, First Flight, is a soaring combination of traditional Mi’kmaq songs and Celtic Cape Breton fiddle that the young player and composer has coined “Mi’kmaltic.” Listening to the tunes on First Flight, you’d be forgiven for assuming Toney’s been at it for at least a solid decade; in fact, he only started playing the fiddle a few years ago, around the age of 18.
Born in We’koqma’q First Nation and based in Wagmatcook First Nation, Toney was the recipient of a hand-me-down fiddle from someone in town who was trading up for a new one. Eventually, he says, he managed to grasp “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” after fiddling (sorry) around with the instrument now and then, and later saw a Facebook ad for lessons in nearby Baddeck.
“That’s when I really started to dive into the tunes of the island,” Toney says over the phone from Cape Breton. “I was starting to buy music books. There are a lot of music books on Cape Breton fiddle music, so I bought pretty much the whole collection. And I started taking more lessons with different people, learning different techniques.”
He enrolled in a Cape Breton University music program because he wanted to learn more about the history of music on the island, but wound up surprised to find out it was a performance program.
“I didn’t really sneak my way in, but I did say that I had a fiddle at home when I was asked, and they assumed that I played, but I had no idea how to play the thing,” Toney says. “They put me in this advanced music program for performance. And it was hard, because everybody else knew what they were doing and I knew like, one song maybe. Didn’t sound good, but I stuck with it. I got asked lots of times if I wanted to opt out, but I just kept going and I found out I had a real passion for Cape Breton fiddle music, and I just stuck with it.”
That passion has led to Toney becoming an in-demand fiddle player on the island, earned him nominations for three East Coast Music Awards this year, and allowed him to collaborate with icons like Ashley MacIsaac, who appears on First Flight’s “Msit No’kmaq.” But, maybe most importantly, it’s brought him closer to his family by engaging in a tradition that runs through generations.
“When I was going to school for that first year, a lot of family members came up to me and said, ‘Oh, I’m really happy that you’re playing the fiddle. We haven’t heard fiddle in the family for a long time,’” Toney says. “My great uncles used to play, my great grandfather played, and that motivated me and got me going.”
What has learning to play the fiddle taught you?
It taught me patience, for sure taught me patience. And I’m just really honoured to play the music of my people. So me and Keith Mullins came up with this whole different genre altogether, separate from what Cape Bretoners are used to hearing—being straight-up Cape Breton fiddle music—but I started singing maybe two years ago, singing Mi’kmaq songs and I kind of built myself an audience. I also built myself an audience by playing the fiddle, just the straight-up traditional tunes of Cape Breton. So I knew there was a way to put these two audiences together and make everybody happy. We took a song, which is the most popular song off the record, “Ko’jua,” and we added a whole bunch of different instruments. We added the fiddle, guitar, a whole bunch of these instruments that you don’t hear with these Mi’kmaq songs, and we created an album, and kind of created a genre, too, called Mi’kmaltic.
The “Ko’jua” has a lot of different variations—what’s the significance of the song in Mi’kmaq tradition?
Well, it’s a song that’s been here for a long, long, long, long time, way before the first settlers came to Nova Scotia, and our [recorded] variation is unique. It’s the most unique one because all the other variations are kind of more recent than our version. Our version is so old that elders today do not know what the words mean, because the language evolved so much from 500 years ago. So, we looked at a lot of different variations of the “Ko’jua,” but that was the one that stuck out because people knew more of that, and they said, ‘That’s the Ko’jua song, one of the earliest versions of the song.’ So we said, ‘OK, let’s make sure that it remains strong. And you know, there are around maybe 10 different variations of the “Ko’jua,” people make their own variations of the “Ko’jua,” but we said this was the one for the album and this was the one that we’re going to sing because of its history.
Are there any fiddle players you looked to for inspiration while you were learning?
Well, I got a lot of lessons from Margie Beaton. She’s one of the pioneers of Cape Breton music along with their sister Dawn. I took lessons from Margie and I learned some of the techniques from her for that traditional Cape Breton fiddle sound. So I look up to her, as well as my very first instructor Stan Chapman. So Stan Chapman has a reputation of teaching fiddle music—he actually taught Natalie MacMaster and Ashley MacIsaac in their earlier days when they first started playing the fiddle. And now I can say that Stan taught me. So he really inspired me. I look up to his playing and he taught me a lot of techniques. And Kyle MacNeil, who’s with the Barra-MacNeils, a great popular band here in Cape Breton, a family band. He taught me for two years and I’m still taking lessons with him, and we get to play a little bit. I play with the Barra-MacNeils once in a while.
What does it feel like to be part of these two traditions—Cape Breton fiddle music for one, but also carrying on in the footsteps of your great uncles and great grandfather?
The thing with the family, you know, is that it feels like their legacy is living on. It’s still strong to this day. The fact that none of my family members heard the fiddle in like, 30, 40 years, since their passing—it kind of lit that fire again. And in terms of just being a fiddler in Cape Breton, one of the things that I love is to just be respected, you know? I go to these bars, I go to these sessions, and I do shows, I meet up with other fiddlers, and there’s respect there, one fiddler to another. It’s great to just be a part of this whole family, Cape Breton fiddlers in Nova Scotia. And it’s amazing just to be a part of a team, because we put a lot of work into this, but I didn’t see us, I didn’t see myself coming this far.
Did you learn anything new about your family when you started playing?
Not really. We’re kind of a laidback family, but you know, the fiddle was the excitement, that was the most exciting thing that ever happened. When I first started playing the drums, no one really talked about how the fiddle is so strong in the Toney family, but when I first started playing and taking lessons and showing my family members, going to their places and showing them tunes that I’d learned, that’s when the stories came out. And I was amazed because I knew of them. but this was a little fact about them—playing the fiddle—that nobody told me. It was really interesting to see that growing up, I didn’t really listen to fiddle music, I didn’t hear stories on fiddle music in my family. But when I first started to play and show it to family members, that’s when the stories came out. And that’s been pushing me just to keep their legacy.
Does playing the fiddle make you feel closer to where you come from?
Yeah. It’s kind of like, even though I never met my great uncles, I make a connection with them when I’m playing music. I think it was my uncle that told me that. We were sitting at the dining room table in the house, and I was playing tunes when I first started to read. And he told me—he senses a lot of stuff. He’s a very spiritual person. And he said, ‘I feel a presence here.’ And this was something that didn’t surprise me, but it was really interesting to hear. I was thinking, ‘I wonder who it is.’ And he said, ‘I bet it’s one of your great uncles that are here.’ He just gets these goosebumps and stuff. And, you know, I feel their presence every time I play the fiddle. They’re just so proud to see somebody in the family picking up the violin.
What song on the album are you most proud of?
I would definitely say “Msit No’kmaq,” because it’s a song that we really spent a lot of time on. It was the first time that we co-wrote together, me and Keith. And it talks about the teachings of Indigenous people and talks about the Great Spirit prayer. The Great Spirit prayer is huge, especially here in Mi’kma’ki, in Nova Scotia. We hear it a lot in ceremonies, and it just talks about how humble we are, and how proud that we are as Mi’kmaq, and how proud we are to be here on this land and how we should respect everything—respect people, respect the Earth. We kind of took that and made it into a song. And it also touches upon a lot of thinking about teachings as well, like how we should treat people. That is one I’m really proud of, because it’s not only bringing Mi’kmaq songs into the light, but also bringing our teachings into the light as well. I think our teachings are so important and everybody can learn from them. Even if you’re not Mi’kmaq—if you’re not native, you can learn from these teachings and you can reflect on these teachings. So that is an important one.
In terms of fiddle tunes, I would say it would be the last song on the record, “Red River to Eskasoni,” because the “Red River Jig” is a song that is not played here in Cape Breton. I’m hesitant to say it but I might be the very first person to ever play the “Red River Jig” in Cape Breton. It’s a Métis tune. Everybody knows the tune. Even if you don’t know the name of it, you’ve definitely heard it before. Did you ever see the Inuit step dancing? This would be one of those tunes that they would be jigging to. Jigging is the word that they use for dancing. So we kind of built a bridge from the Red River to Eskasoni by combining the “Red River Jig” and a song that Lee Cremo’s father Simon Cremo composed called “Eskasoni Breakdown.” We’re putting these two different tunes together, and it was a beautiful thing that we we made that connection. I think a lot of people, for the very first time, got to hear the “Red River Jig” in Cape Breton. And they’re loving it.