Hanneke Cassel’s ‘Over the Sea to Skye’ features expressiveness, exquisiteness in the presentation

Although the tunes featured on her "Over the Sea to Skye" album are widely played in Scottish and Cape Breton circles, Hanneke Cassel found that surprisingly few of them had been recorded by fiddlers. "It felt good to put together a fiddle version."


There was a time when Boston-area musician Hanneke Cassel – one of the premier Scottish and Cape Breton-style fiddlers in the US – didn’t think much of Celtic music.

As a kid, the Oregon native played, and competed in, Texas-style fiddle. But her teacher, Carol Ann Wheeler, had met Alasdair Fraser and Buddy MacMaster, masters of Scottish and Cape Breton fiddle, respectively, and thought these traditions would be a good fit for Cassel. 

Cassel wasn’t wild about the idea.

“I kept turning up my nose at Scottish and Celtic music,” recalls Cassel. It wasn’t so much that she had a deep, abiding love for Texas fiddle; she enjoyed the competitions and the atmosphere around them. 

But Wheeler prevailed upon Cassel, then 14 years old, to enter the 1992 US National Junior Scottish Fiddle contest at Loon Mountain, NH, and helped her put together a set of tunes – a march, strathspey, and two reels – as her competition piece. Cassel won.

The victory proved life-changing for Cassel, who the following year embarked on a visit to the Isle of Skye, where she began her immersion in Scottish and Cape Breton music at a weeklong fiddle and dance program, with Fraser and MacMaster among the teachers. There was more to the experience than that, however: She saw how music can be a means to build community and forge enduring friendships.

That atmosphere of fellowship and shared joys inspires Cassel’s most recent album, “Over the Sea to Skye,” released late last year online and recently on CD. Cassel plays tunes regarded as canonical to the Scottish and Cape Breton traditions – such as “Jig of Slurs,” “Atholl Highlanders,” “Miss Drummond of Perth,” “Brenda Stubbert’s,” “Mrs. MacLeod of Raasay,” and “Jenny Dang the Weaver” – most of which she learned from tapes she recorded at various sessions, classes and dances during that first visit to Skye. She is accompanied throughout by guitarist Yann Falquet, with special guests on the last two of the album’s 12 tracks. 

Cassel, of course, has played these tunes innumerable times since 1993, especially at the many fiddle camps she’s attended, whether as a student or faculty member.  But as she’s cultivated her distinctive style and sound – one which incorporates elements of American fiddle and includes many of her own compositions – old favorites like “Mrs. MacLeod” or “Jenny Dang” rarely made it into her performance repertoire, or on her recordings.

Then, in April of last year, Cassel received an email from an acquaintance at Valley of the Moon, the California-based fiddle camp directed by Fraser that has long been a fixture in her life as a musician, suggesting she make a CD featuring all those much-loved session tunes. Given that the pandemic had begun to exert its influence, scuttling the touring and travel plans of Cassel and many other musicians, the email was a case of right idea, right time.

“I thought, ‘Yeah, I’m a Scots/Cape Breton fiddler, but it seems like I hardly play these tunes much anymore – this would be the perfect project,’” says Cassel. “I didn’t learn any new material: I just chose the most overplayed, fun tunes, and I discovered all over again how much I love them.”

At first, she considered an entirely DIY effort, where she would record her own keyboard accompaniment to her fiddle, but she knew Falquet – who lives near Cassel and her husband, cellist Mike Block – had top-notch equipment for home-based recording, and she was well-acquainted with his skills as a guitarist and member of popular Quebecois trio Genticorum. 

“I’ve known Yann for a long time, and enjoyed playing with him. When I explained what this project entailed, he was totally into it and we had a lot of fun putting the sets together. We began working in earnest in August, and during the fall we had a few outdoor gigs, so that was a good opportunity to really polish the sets. Actually playing with someone on these tunes, I thought, ‘This is really like fiddle camp!’”

Recording “Over the Sea to Skye” entailed a readjustment of sorts for Cassel: playing in the unalloyed Scottish/Cape Breton styles, without the flourishes and influences she typically incorporates, and with straightforward arrangements. But none of this dilutes or diminishes the expressiveness, power and exquisiteness in Cassel’s delivery; Falquet, meanwhile, provides an often understated but solid backing, sometimes switching to harmony or flatpicking the melody alongside Cassel. 

As they worked on the tracks, Cassel found another, rather unexpected raison d’etre for the album. “Yann and I went through the ’Net, and found that, while these tunes are very well known, it was surprising how few fiddlers had actually recorded them. A lot were more in the ‘band tunes’ format, like ‘Dashing White Sergeant,’ or tended to be featured on accordion. So it felt good to put together a fiddle version.”

Twenty-eight years ago, Cassel could scarcely have imagined she would someday be a full-fledged Scottish/Cape Breton fiddler with an impressive recording portfolio, and highly regarded for her mentorship. When she won the Scottish fiddle competition at Loon Mountain, she was awarded a scholarship that could be used for several different music programs, including at Valley of the Moon. But Fraser, whom she met at the competition (“I was smitten, instantly,” laughs Cassel), urged her to go to the one in Skye, offered at Sabhal Mor Ostaig, a college recognized as a national center for Scottish Gaelic language and culture. So, Cassel flew with her mother to Glasgow, and from there they drove to Kyle of Lochaish, where they boarded a ferry for Skye. 

Cassel was “blown away” when she arrived at the campus: Music seemed to be coming from everywhere at once, amidst all the socializing and other activity. In fact, as a newcomer and a relative neophyte to Scottish music, she felt a little overwhelmed by the whole spectacle. But that first evening, a girl about her age convinced Cassel to try Scottish ceilidh dancing – social dancing with similarities to American contra and square dancing. The robust ceilidh dance atmosphere helped to break the ice (“I nearly got thrown into a wall during one dance”) and set in motion a most rewarding week of classes, workshops, and sessions for Cassel.

Through that week at Sabhal Mor Ostaig, Cassel came to understand that the music, while enjoyable for its own sake, didn’t exist in a vacuum. It was inextricably linked to dance, and by extension, the community which gathered to enjoy these diversions. However much she might enjoy playing tunes on her own, there was equal gratification in gathering with friends, acquaintances, even complete strangers, and sharing the music and dance.

Fraser, having nudged Cassel into attending the program at Sabhal Mor Ostaig, was on hand there as well, and he figured into another key turn in Cassel’s musical development when he urged her to try Cape Breton fiddle. Cassel wound up sitting next to MacMaster (the uncle of internationally renowned fiddler Natalie MacMaster, he died in 2014), who gave her friendly encouragement and advice.

Cassel, who returned to Sabhal Mor Ostaig several more times, went on to win another junior title in Scottish fiddle the following year, and in 1997 took the open/over-18 title, when she was in her sophomore year at the Berklee College of Music (she also was grand champion in the 1996 Oregon Texas-style fiddle competition). Even as she dove into Boston’s vibrant, multifaceted music scene, the memories and impressions from Skye and other fiddle camps remained strong in her mind. So she was delighted to find that Boston not had only plenty of Scottish music devotees, but a flourishing Cape Breton community as well. 

Cassel also was struck by the large population of young people in the Boston area interested in traditional music and dance – some of them in fact wound up being her fiddle students. Remembering her experiences at Skye, she brainstormed for a way to nurture that interest while at the same time extending outreach to older generations. Thus was born the Boston Urban Ceilidh, an occasionally occurring event built around Scottish, Cape Breton, and Irish social dancing, with live music and what she describes as a “mosh pit” mindset: high energy and an emphasis on participation, no matter anyone’s lack of familiarity with the dance traditions. The Boston Urban Ceilidh – also the namesake of reel composed by Cassel – has since become a highlight of the annual Boston Celtic Music (BCMFest). 

In putting the finishing touches on “Over the Sea to Skye,” Cassel wanted to evoke something of those days at Sabhal Mor Ostaig that provided so much inspiration for her music. She enlisted the help of other fiddlers she’d known from her past visits to Skye, Ronan Martin, Jenny Smith, Karen Steven, and Adam Sutherland, to play the climactic four-part reel “The High Drive” on a set of tunes; the four recorded their parts and sent them along to Cassel and Falquet so they could be integrated into the master version. 

“I thought about inviting a bunch of fiddlers from the Boston area to play with me on the track,” says Cassel. “But this whole thing was about Skye, and recapturing the spirit there, so ultimately it felt to me that having people who’d been there, too, was the right way to go. It was fun getting in touch with them and working the tune out – felt quite nostalgic.”

For the album’s last track, Fraser joins Cassel on a gorgeously rendered pair of strathspeys, “O’er the Muir Among the Heather” and “The Smith’s a Gallant Fireman,” the fiddles playing in sweet harmony.

“Alasdair has been a big influence for me in so many ways, and seeing as how he was the one who suggested I go to Skye in the first place, it was natural to include him in the project. I had both him and Buddy [MacMaster] in my head and heart as I worked on all the sets: I’d think, ‘How would we play this tune?’ That was a great feeling.

“In some ways, the album was a simple thing – getting back to basics and all that – and it was a welcome outlet, especially during such a hard year when about all I could do was practice. I feel very fortunate to have a friend like Yann, who was willing and able to work with me. I’ve had some other, ongoing collaborations over the years, but doing this album with him felt like putting on a new identity.”

For more about Hanneke Cassel and “Over the Sea to Skye,” go to hannekecassel.com.