We've written about young Newfoundland trad band The Dardanelles before. They were first one of our favorite finds of the 2011 Folk Alliance Conference, then we wrote about the amazing solo album that lead singer Matthew Byrne released. Now they're back with a new album, The Eastern Light, of tunes and songs from this far corner of Eastern Canada, and they're in better shape than ever.
The Eastern Light was produced by Irish guitar king John Doyle, and it's similar to other albums he's produced in the way it couples an honest love and appreciation for tradition with masterfully built arrangements. The album flips back and forth between sets of traditional Newfoundland dance tunes and songs led by lead singer Matthew Byrne. Byrne's in fine form here and his voice has never sounded better. He's got one of the sweetest male voices I've ever heard, a soft tenor that any fan of Irish singing will recognize kinship with, and a gentle touch that really draws out the emotional heart of the old ballads he's singing. The songs are glorious finds, concerned with life and love on the windswept seas off Newfoundland. There's much in this album for any lover of maritime music, including a rousing sea shanty with special guests Alan Doyle and Bob Hallett from Great Big Sea! The tunes are well sourced as well, drawn from the mainstays of Newfoundland fiddle like French Acadian fiddlers Émile Benoit and Rufus Guinchard, but also from Dardanelles' accordion player Aaron Collis' visits with Boyd Cove musician Bernard Newman, who passed away in 2011 with over 90 years of age!
We were curious to find out more about Aaron's playing and influences, and about Newfoundland accordion music in general, so we asked him for some background. Here's what he had to say:
"I grew up in Central Newfoundland in a place called Appleton. My mom played guitar and sang on occasion when I was younger so I wasn't a stranger to music, although traditional music wasn't something that she played. I actually started taking piano lessons with a neighbour when I was eleven and although I continued with the piano, I developed an interest in Newfoundland music after having seen the accordion played at a wedding reception and at other local events. So I saved up some money selling newspapers and bought myself an accordion when I was 12. I learned to play by ear, watching other players whenever I had the chance and listening to recordings.
As in any place, style differs somewhat from player to player, though Newfoundland accordion music is typically rhythmic and punchy. The playing isn't as highly ornamented as that of Irish playing styles, and the tempos of the tunes tend to be faster. I actually use an accordion in the Irish tuning of C#/D on both of our albums but I like to think I've retained characteristics of the Newfoundland style in my playing. Although single row instruments and boxes in tunings such as A/D or G/C are more prevalent, the Irish systems are growing in popularity, mainly in St. John's where there are weekly Irish tune sessions.
I enjoy Vince Collins' playing as well [note: we're huge Vince Collins nerds at Hearth Music]. Some other recommendations I would give you in the same vein as Vince's playing would be The Four Stops, an album which features traditional players from the Northern peninsula and the Labrador Straits, the late Minnie White, and the great single-row player Frank Maher. Geoff Butler's playing was great on Figgy Duff's first few albums as well. I think right now, Daniel Payne and Graham Wells are two players who are raising the bar for accordion players in Newfoundland." [note: Thanks for the tips Aaron!]
Alongside Aaron's hefty accordion playing (Newfoundland accordionists in general have a lot more rhythm than Irish accordionists), fiddler Emilia Bartellas more than holds her own. Her playing is one of the album's centerpieces, and she shines on every track, with a rich tone and strong command of the special rhythms of Newfoundland music. Tom Power on guitar is another key part, obviously influenced by Doyle, but able to draw out beautiful chords along with his powerful backing. Tom's also a broadcaster on CBC Canada who's done some great work promoting Canadian roots music on the air. In fact, he just aired a special internet channel for Canadian roots HERE. Check it out, he's got great taste and wide breadth of knowledge. Bodhran player Richard Klaas rounds out the band's sound nicely, adding a great bass element to the group. With this current lineup, it seems The Dardanelles have found their sound!
The Eastern Light deserves a lot more press and attention, so I hope you'll share this music around if you're touched by it as well. Not only are The Dardanelles perfectly able to communicate the salty soul of Newfoundland music to Celtic music fans, they've also managed to cross over to become one of the best Celtic bands around.
The Dardanelles: Pad's Song
The Dardanelles: McCarthy's
(McCarthy's Double/Kitty Got A Clinkin'/Diane's Happiness)