In the Mi’kmaq community of Nova Scotia there are songs built upon the strong foundation of the drum. You’ll also find the fiddle, which has been adapted from Celtic traditions over the years by the Mi’kmaq people. But for the most part, the songs and the fiddle have been separate parts of Mi’kmaq culture. This duality comes together in a unique way on Morgan Toney’s debut album First Flight, released by Ishkodé Records.
“When I first started being a performer, I was just going to ceremonies and singing the Mi’kmaq songs I knew,” said Morgan, who spoke to me while in Charlottetown, PEI for the Canadian Folk Music Awards. “But I was also a fiddle player on the side and played fiddle tunes at shows. It never dawned on me to put those two cultures together.”
In trying to figure out ways to accompany himself while singing the traditional Mi’kmaq song 'Ko’jua', Morgan tried a variety of things before settling on the fiddle. Around this same time, singer-songwriter Keith Mullins was performing at The Freight Shed in Baddeck, where his now-partner was working. Morgan’s cousin was also working at the restaurant and suggested that Keith should check out Morgan’s music. A quick phone call later and the two were hanging out and playing music together. Morgan played a rough version of 'Ko’jua' for Keith, who immediately offered to record the song. A video was created for social media, which gained a lot of attention, and now 'Ko’jua' is the most popular song on First Flight.
The album has done very well for Morgan, garnering a Canadian Folk Music Award nomination for Indigenous Songwriter of the Year and three East Coast Music Award nominations (Indigenous Artist, Inspirational Recording and Rising Star Recording). Already in the bag is a Music Nova Scotia award for Indigenous Artist of the Year.
“I’m thinking about how far I’ve come in such a short time,” he said. “At first it was a lot of work for me and Keith because we didn’t think we’d be in such high demand. But we’re hitting all the ball parks here because you’ve got the Mi’kmaq culture of Cape Breton and the Celtic music scene in Cape Breton. People are going crazy over it!”
The unique combination has even spawned a new description for the genre, courtesy of social media, “Mi’kmaltic”.
“That one word inspired the entire album!”
After releasing First Flight on their own, Morgan and Keith connected with the people behind Ishkodé Records.
“A powerful group of Indigenous women,” he said. “It’s amazing, and it only made sense to join the family. Me and Keith can only get so far but Ishkodé Records is under the Universal Music umbrella. So they’re able to help make what we’ve got, better.”
The personal touch the folks at Ishkodé provide has given Morgan confidence his music is in good hands.
“I feel really good about the label and everybody that’s involved with it. It’s amazing. It really is.”
Equally amazing is Morgan’s accomplishments in music in what has been a relatively short amount of time. He played drums for a couple of years before picking up the fiddle and didn’t write songs until he met up with Keith.
“When I did my research on who Keith Mullins was, he was a big deal in Cape Breton. So because of Keith, my songwriting has improved from the first day I met him.”
Keith’s connections to the Cape Breton music scene came in handy when he and Morgan were looking for additional players to augment the sound of First Flight, including fiddlers Ashley MacIsaac, Colin Grant and Bradley Murphy.
“The Cape Breton music scene is really supportive," said Morgan. “You’ve got all these artists that just want to help each other out.”
Keith has featured Colin on his own records and Morgan met Ashley when the two of them appeared at the 2020 Celtic Colours Festival.
In the recording of 'Msit No’kmaq', Morgan and Keith realized it was missing a fiddle solo. Reluctant to try it himself, Morgan suggested Ashley.
“It has that Ashley MacIsaac vibe,” he said. “He nailed it right off the bat. It’s a beautiful song.”
The award nominations, combined with the Ishkodé Records signing has increased Morgan’s profile in a very short time and he for one is very grateful.
“We’re just happy to be on stage. We want to build a personal connection with the audience, and I love that we do.”