Sonas at Agawam

Event Summary

2008 September 20 (Saturday)
Private house concert at the Captain Charles Leonard House, 663 Main Street, Agawam, Massachusetts
Sonas, a New Jersey trio of musicians passionate about Cape Breton fiddle music.
$14.00 by advance reservation via e-mail to Meg Sullivan at
or by phone at +1 (413) 789-9267; $18.00 at the door

Review for the Cape Breton Music List
(Posted 2008 September 22)

This past Saturday, Sonas opened the fall concert season at the Captain Charles Leonard House in Agawam. This group consists of three musicians from Northern New Jersey; in the words of their MySpace web page:

Sonas, Gaelic for happiness, formed in the summer of 2006, after Tina and Margie, two sisters who had been playing Cape Breton style music together for a few years, decided they wanted people to hear this great music. Playing fiddle only by ear, Tina wanted to learn how to read music, so enlisted the help of Amy, a classical violin teacher. Tina played a few tunes for Amy and she was hooked. Amy joined Tina and Margie at the Ceilidh Trail School of Celtic Music in CB, Nova Scotia last year (Tina and Margie had been there before) and when they got back home, they decided they were going to form a Celtic band with a strong Cape Breton style influence. Sonas was fortunate to study with some of the great masters of Cape Breton style fiddle and piano accompaniment: Troy MacGillivray, Kimberly Fraser, Jerry Holland, Howie MacDonald.

This was the first time I had heard this group play and I was looking forward to it—Cape Breton style music from New Jersey musicians is something I never thought I’d live to see!

The concert began promptly at 19h30 and Sonas launched into their first set, none of the tunes in which could I name, but all of which I had heard before. It was a typical set of Cape Breton tunes, starting slow and ending with a speedy set of reels, all played at the right tempo throughout; their fine playing captured both the audience's attention and heart and they held it for the rest of the concert.

The second set was an Irish set, played in the Irish style. Their third set was a set of hornpipes, many of them heard in Troy MacGillivray’s playing; in this set, Margie’s keyboard accompaniment was outstanding—heretofore I’d pretty much been listening to the fiddles—but in this set (and others throughout the evening) the keyboard accompaniment, reminiscent of both Mac Morin and Troy MacGillivray, grabbed my attention and admiration. Margie told us of her great week at the Cèilidh Trail School of Music where she was a multiple of the age of the next eldest of her class, taught by Kolten MacDonnell, still in his teens. A talented young fiddler and pianist, it is clear that his teaching was very effective, as Margie has become a fine accompanist in the Cape Breton style.

The next set was a beautiful slow air, Elizabeth’s Song by Glengarry (Ontario) fiddler Ashley MacLeod, who composed it for her grandmother; the dual fiddles were rich and lush. This was followed by a set of Cape Breton jigs, including Muckin’ o’ Geordie’s Byre and The Sailor’s Wife. The next set included The St. Kilda Wedding, The Merry Blacksmith, and The Maid behind the Bar; for the first of these tunes, the dual fiddles were unaccompanied. The final set of the first half consisted of three strathspeys and some reels, all familiar, but none of whose titles I know.

A set of fiddle hornpipes, with Tina on lead fiddle and Amy on backing fiddle and without any keyboard accompaniment, opened the second half of the concert. This was followed by an Irish jig set. Next came a set of Scottish/Shetlands tunes, very nicely played. If Ever You Were Mine followed; it was beautifully done, with the melody switching from the fiddles to the keyboard (with backing fiddles) and then back to the fiddles; it was followed by several other tunes on which Meg Sullivan joined in on bodhràn. At Sonas’ request, Meg continued on the bodhràn as the others launched into an A-minor jig set. A set of march/strathspey/reels followed and then another set consisting of a long blast of reels. The final set was composed of Cape Breton tunes and here again the keyboard accompaniment was superb, embellishing and enriching the music in a very subtle, understated way. The encore set was Niel Gow’s Lament for the Death of His Second Wife, played with great tone and beautiful phrasing on the fiddles and again superb keyboard accompaniment, especially in the bass. This marvellous conclusion to a fine performance earned the musicians a standing ovation.

Tina and Amy are very fine fiddlers, technically accurate and well able to convey the spirit of the music to the audience. I enjoyed their passionate playing very much, though I often found it overly smooth—the cuts, grace notes, and other embellishments that make the Cape Breton fiddle style so distinctive and so individual (often called “dirt” or “grit”[1]) were often either altogether missing or insufficiently plentiful to convince my ears I was really listening to Cape Breton fiddle music, even though the vast majority of the tunes were drawn from the Cape Breton repertoire. Margie’s keyboard accompaniments, on the other hand, came across as squarely in the Cape Breton style and were very well done. Interestingly enough, the music clips posted on their MySpace web site sound somewhat grittier to my ears than did the music at the concert itself. The smoothness is probably better suited in any case to most American ears, who are accustomed to it from other fiddle traditions. This minor caveat notwithstanding, I look forward to hearing this group again and can wholeheartedly recommend that you seek them out when you have a chance.

Thanks once again to Meg and Dan Sullivan for organizing a great series of Celtic music house concerts; over the many years, they have done so much to spread this music to a wider audience, providing a venue for both upcoming new groups such as this one and for established artists. There are two house concerts at the Captain Charles Leonard House coming up in October, neither of which I will be able to attend, but which will surely continue the tradition of fine Celtic music performances in Western Massachusetts. Even if you are not close by, Meg and Dan’s concerts are always worth the drive!

[1] See, e.g., pp. 63-4 of The Cape Breton Fiddle by Glenn Graham, Cape Breton University Press, Sydney, Cape Breton, 2006 (ISBN-13: 978-1-897009-09-3; ISBN-10: 1-897009-09-7).


Meg Sullivan opens the concert

Tina and Amy on dual fiddles

Tina and Amy on dual fiddles
accompanied by Margie on keyboard

Tina and Amy on dual fiddles
accompanied by Margie on keyboard

Margie on keyboard

Tina and Amy on dual fiddles

Tina and Amy on dual fiddles
accompanied by Meg on bodhràn


Tina and Amy on dual fiddles
accompanied by Margie on keyboard
and Meg on bodhràn

Tina and Amy on dual fiddles

Margie on keyboard

Tina and Amy on dual fiddles

Meg on bodhràn

Margie, Tina, and Amy after the concert