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A guide to visiting Cape Breton Island, host of the 2024 Music Tourism Convention

A guide to visiting Cape Breton Island

“45% of visitors to our Island cite music as a motivator to visit”

Jody MacArthur, Director of Marketing and Sales, Destination Cape Breton

On May 29-31, 2024, the Music Tourism Convention will be travelling to Cape Breton Island, one of the most unique music destinations of the world, a place where Celtic, Acadian, Mi' Kmaq culture and impressive natural sights combine into a thriving cultural hub.

We’re really excited to be arriving very soon to this amazing island. To get ready for this experience, we asked our partners at Destination Cape Breton to help us prepare a guide to visiting Cape Breton Island, host of the 2024 Music Tourism Convention.

Scroll down to discover an overview of its music history, its key music personalities, the must-see musical attractions and the incredible 3 day pre-convention music tour that we prepared for delegates of the Music Tourism Convention!

An island that punches well above its weight in musical talent

There’s no doubt that Cape Breton Island is a one of a kind music destination. A strong testament to the allure of this destination is that in 2019, it was voted the #1 Island in Canada (#8 in the World) by Travel + Leisure and #1 Island in the Americas by Condé Nast Traveler. In addition, research by Destination Cape Breton shows that 45% of visitors to the Island cite music as a motivator to visit.

For an Island of 130,000 inhabitants, Cape Breton Island punches well above its weight in musical talent. It has two Grammy winners, fiddling sensation Natalie MacMaster and songwriter Gordie Sampson, and multiple Juno Award (i.e. Canadian music awards) winners. The Island is best known for its Celtic music and wealth of songwriters, but it also has renowned Indigenous, Francophone artists, and emerging talents in pop, rock and hip hop.

Cape Breton Island Music Traditions

Cape Breton Island is known as Unama’ki (oo-na-maug-ee) among the Indigenous Mi’kmaq people, who have lived on the Island for more than 10,000 years. The Mi’kmaq have a rich cultural tradition that is based in drumming, singing, and dancing. The Sons of Membertou drummers are nationally renowned and recently played in France at the 100th Anniversary of the Vimy battle. Emma Stevens, a young Mi’kmaq singer gained renown in the past year with her version of the Beatles’ “Blackbird”, which went viral on YouTube and earned her a call-out from Paul McCartney at a concert in Canada.

The Acadians settled in Cape Breton in the 1700s when the Island was a French colony called Île-Royale. They brought their musical traditions, songs, and dancing, which are still celebrated in the Island’s Francophone regions today. Ron Bourgeois, from the Cape Breton community of Chéticamp, is one of the most influential French singer-songwriters from Acadie and his songs have been recorded by artists from Quebec, Louisiana, and France. Notable Acadian performers such as Maxim Cormier are emerging with both French and English audiences. 

Following the Highland Clearances in Scotland, a large contingent of Gaels settled in Cape Breton in the 1800’s. They brought their traditions of fiddling, piping, singing, and step dancing and the relative isolation of the Island kept those traditions alive when they were under threat in Scotland. In the 1990s, there was a renaissance in this traditional Celtic music of Cape Breton Island, which saw the rise of such artists as the Rankin Family, Ashley MacIsaac, the Barra MacNeils, Natalie MacMaster, Bruce Guthro (lead singer with Runrig), and others, which contributed to the emergence of Cape Breton as a music tourism destination. 

These three main cultures maintained their traditions, but also influenced each other over the centuries, creating a rich and distinct cultural tapestry where some of the finest musicians of the traditional Celtic genre are Mi’kmaq or Acadian. With industrialization, other immigrants brought their cultures and traditions to add further depth to the musical mix. 

Today, we have new traditions being formed. The Gordie Sampson Songcamp has helped to launch the careers of many performing artists such as Dave Sampson, who recently had his song “No Pressure” sampled on a collaboration of Canadian rapper Classified and Snoop Dogg. People often remark that “there must be something in the water” in Cape Breton that allows the Island to continue to produce exciting musicians.

While music is a key part of our living cultures, it is also an emerging motivator. Experiencing live music was cited as a planned experience by 45% of Travel Intention Survey respondents. With so many accomplished touring artists, who are the finest ambassadors for the Island, it is natural that visitors would seek music as an important component of their visit.

A music tour through Cape Breton Island

The Music Tourism Convention wouldn’t be complete with a music tour around Cape Breton Island. That’s why Cabot Discovery Tours has designed a unique experience for Convention delegates to go on a 3-day cultural journey across Cape Breton Island, using music as a tool to help you discover and enjoy the Island's unique landscapes and breathtaking views. 

From rich heritage and traditions to the contemporary scene, music on Cape Breton is everywhere, and during this tour you will get to explore every aspect of the "Music Island" and experience an experience like no other.

In this experience you will be able to Discover North America’s only living history museum for Gaelic language and:

  • Become a master of square-dancing & spoon playing

  • Experience live music played by local artists from Cape Breton Island

  • Take part in the Eskasoni Cultural Journeys and learn the art of basketry

  • Learn about the Mi’kmaq musical culture through performances by local trailblazing Indigenous Artists

  • Take stunning photos from some of the most scenic Cape Breton Island viewpoints

  • Expand your network and develop unique connections with other delegates from all around the world

Cape Breton Island Music Tour Itinerary Highlights

Monday May 27th, 2024

Tuesday May 28th, 2024

Wednesday, May 29th, 2024

Join the pre-convention music tour

We hope you're excited as we are about experiencing Cape Breton Island as a music destination! If you're planning of making the most of the Island while attending the Cape Breton Island Music Tourism Convention, May 29-31st, 2024, then make sure to take part in the pre-convention music tour.

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