I first met Ellen MacPhee when she was 11 years old, and I was a radio host for CBC. I'd heard about this brother and sister - Ellen and her younger brother John - who were singing songs in Gaelic. (For those of you who aren't versed in Celtic culture, Gaelic is the ancient language of the Scots and Irish. It sounds rather like you're gargling like a blender full of bananas. But the tunes? Haunting and absolutely beautiful.)
Over the years, I had many opportunities to interview Ellen. A brilliant student and a wonderful musician, she was part of the cultural contingent of the Canadian team at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. She joined and toured with "Up With People". And when I'd see her, after a long time apart, we'd never run out of things to say. Our conversations would start as if our last chat - which might have been months earlier - had ended in ellipses.
And she took up the Scottish Small Pipes with the same enthusiasm she tackled everything else in her life. She became a world class player - and that's not just me saying that. She's something else.
Like nobody I've met before, she plays for the sheer joy of playing. When she was living in Toronto, studying Chiropractic Medicine, she'd pack her pipes in her case and head for a local Scottish or Irish pub to sit in with whoever was playing that night. I'd visit her there, and when she'd walk in, there would be a palpable lift in the spirits of everyone in the room. She'd sit down and play for hours on end, tirelessly, with a grin on her face that lit the room, and you could tell from the looks on the other musicians' faces that they loved having her there.
A few years back, I put together a show called "Fiddlin' With The Truth". It featured a great New Brunswick singer/guitarist/piano player named Jeff Matheson; my daughter Allison on fiddle; me, on blahblah; and Ellen, on pipes. She's also a terrific step dancer, so there was that element, too. We played for a week to sold out audiences at the Meaford Opera House in Meaford, Ontario. It still ranks as one of the highlights of my performing career - not just for the quality of the show but for the companionship and fun times we had.
This past year, Ellen has been interning with a Wellness Centre north of San Francisco. We've kept in touch, through chat and phone. I could tell she missed the Island desperately, and couldn't wait to get home.
And now, she is. And I couldn't be happier. She makes the lives of everyone around her just that much more rich. She's bright and pleasant and savagely funny and one of those people who exudes positive energy and a brilliant life force. I once told her mom and dad, Susan and Gerard, that she was everything you'd ever want in a daughter, and I hoped my girls would turn out to be the kind of person Ellen is. (They have.)
Here's Ellen, playing the Scottish Small Pipes, in performance with Jeff Matheson, at the Rollo Bay Fiddle Festival. If the small pipes are new to you, I'd say they are an acquired taste. Let your ears get used to them through the slower airs at the beginning - then just enjoy the spirit and energy of the jigs that follow, about 3 minutes in.
If this loads too slowly, here's a direct copy on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y-6P1FBnRzc
Meet my third daughter. Enjoy.