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Newfoundland's Emilia Bartellas: Fire in the North
Lois R. Shea
2015-02-24
It’s a Saturday night in August in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Music lovers have come to the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival at Bowring Park (as you would) packing rain gear, woolen hats and sweaters. Anything could happen.
           
Friday night’s show was foreshortened by torrential rain, and Saturday afternoon’s by a freak lightening storm (of all the weather that hits this place — corporeal fog, lashing rain and wind and snow — lightening is unusual). The weather has caused more than its share of dismay among festival-goers and musicians. Among the chief reasons for dismay was that the Dardanelles, Newfoundland’s most rollicking trad band, had been scheduled to headline on Friday night.
           
Rumors murmur through the crowd now that “the Dards” may yet make an abbreviated appearance. De Temps Antan (perhaps Québec’s most rollicking trad band) takes the stage. As fiddler André Brunet starts to play “La Fée des Dents,” a young woman with a fiddle steps on from stage right — and a cry of appreciation goes up in the crowd. Emilia Bartellas, raven-haired, is dressed in blue; the stage lights shift to match her dress, and a light fog wafts through the lights to surround her. Brunet turns to her, smiles. She plays a harmony to that slow jig that you can feel on your skin. The weather is forgotten.
           
Emilia Bartellas is the Dardanelles’ fiddler, all of twenty-six years old and considered by many to be the finest fiddle player of her generation in the province. She and her bandmates have become standard-bearers for the island’s repertoire of traditional instrumental music. Her album with accordion player Aaron Collis won the Music NL Awards 2014 Celtic/Traditional Recording of the Year. She has recently been asked to represent Newfoundland and Labrador in a “coast-to-coast” fiddle recording and performance project (talent context: Ashley MacIsaac will represent Nova Scotia, André Brunet Québec, and Richard Wood Prince Edward Island).
           
“She’s got a fire,” said Kelly Russell, who was named a member of the Order of Canada in 2013 for his role in the preservation of Newfoundland’s traditional music. “There’s a lot of innovation in her playing as well — so she’s got a style that’s really all her own. She is top of the list among the young fiddlers that I hear today...She has taken it to another level.”
           
Tom Power, madcap guitarist, CBC radio host, and band leader of the Dardanelles, knew exactly whom to call when his band needed a fiddler. Bartellas’ playing, he said is “Joyful. Definitely joyful, reverent, soulful, spiritual...when she plays the fiddle, I see her close her eyes and enter this very peaceful, meditative kind of state and that peaceful joy comes across to the audience and her bandmates as well… She understands and respects music and traditional music and she considers it, and she thinks about it. Not everyone can breathe life into the music the way she does.”
                       

 
In Newfoundland, the capital of St. John’s is referred to as “Town,” and its inhabitants “Townies.” Bartellas is a Townie, raised in a neighborhood at the base of Signal Hill called the Battery, where houses cling to the side of a steep rock incline rising from the harbor. (For the record, the name of the island is pronounced “New-fun-land” — so “land” gets the emphasis, and “found” sounds like “fun.”)
 
Her parents might be called “Livyers” which the Dictionary of Newfoundland English (yes, there is one) defines as “A permanent settler of coastal Newfoundland (as opposed to migratory fisherman from England).” Maeve Kelly came here from Dublin as a young physician to work in the village of Come by Chance in Placentia Bay (pop. 265). Elias Bartellas, also a young physician, came from Cyprus to St. John’s after studying in Israel. He wanted to go somewhere peaceful. He was smitten by Newfoundland. And by Maeve Kelly. The two had intended to stay a year. That was something like forty years ago. And when the couple married and had children, Elias wanted nothing more than for them to play fiddle.
           
“In Cyprus, the fiddle player is a very important part of village life,” Emilia Bartellas says. “Not dissimilar to outport Newfoundland.” (An “outport” is a small, waterfront village.) Elias, in his youth, saved up to buy a cheap fiddle and learned to play Cypriot tunes. But he never achieved the rank of village fiddler. He bought Emilia her first violin when she was three. Maeve carted her to lessons, and sat, patient and encouraging, through daily practice. “My mother is a saint, having to listen to so much squeaking and squawking,” Bartellas says.
           
The family settled in the Battery, home to some significant St. John’s musical lineage. Elias and Maeve saw the then-hardscrabble neighborhood with the appreciative eyes of outsiders. (Emilia lives there still, just across the road from the house in which she was raised.)
           
Emilia was enrolled in Suzuki violin at four. Her teacher, Christina Smith, mixed in a constant stream of traditional Newfoundland tunes. (Emilia’s siblings, Michael and Katrina, are also musicians.) “She was a very smart little kid,” Smith remembers. “She really had an intellect beyond her age.”            
 
The Bartellas house was full of music. Elias’ Greek tunes, Tchaikovsky, Itzhak Perlman, Newfoundland fiddler Emile Benoit, and Paddy Glackin of Ireland’s Bothy Band.
           
“I didn’t fully appreciate, growing up, that Newfoundland tunes were unique to here,” Bartellas said.
           
Sometimes, you have to leave a place to appreciate it. Bartellas left to study classical violin at the University of Toronto. People would ask her for Newfoundland tunes. “They were wired into me, but I didn’t know they were Newfoundland tunes,” she said. A teacher in Toronto, Patrick Ourceau, helped her understand the role of ambassador.
           
“He said, ‘you can’t just play a tune — you need to know the history behind it. You have to respect the music.’ That’s when I kind of smartened up,” Bartellas said. She came back with new ears and eyes for home. She dove headfirst into Newfoundland music. Power called in 2009, needing a fiddler for the Dards. And she and Collis released their duo CD in 2013.
           
And she enrolled at Memorial University of Newfoundland as a medical student, focusing on rural medicine. She is exploring the province as she studies medicine. She disembarks, fiddle in hand, in places like Goose Bay and Twillingate, where she will play with the old folks at the senior home and with younger folks in the local jam session. “Through the music,” she says, “you learn about the history of a place.”
 
Newfoundland sits at the most easterly point in North America, in its own personal time zone — an hour and a half ahead of Eastern Standard Time. It  has a rich musical, linguistic, and cultural heritage. It is a place with not only its own set of speech patterns, but patterns that vary from cove to cove. It is a place where people call one another by the affectionate and familiar (and genderless) “b’y” (or “boy”); and bartenders refer to customers as “m’love.” There is a Dictionary of Newfoundland English because words like “empter,” and “bangbelly,” “duff,” “tickle,” and “blow-me-down” demand to be preserved.
           
The music is similarly rich, and unique to this place. And it has a vocabulary all its own. (The DNE actually refers to accordion players as “fiddlers” but that’s one for the ethnomusicologists to sort out.)
           
The music evolved here as settlers and fishers came ashore — Irish, English, Scots, French, Basque. There is a voluminous catalog of songs, and the traditional instrumental music evolved in symbiosis with the dance.
           
“Everyone has had their touch on it, and it’s hundreds of years evolved,” Bartellas says. “It’s rhythmic dance music…an incessant rhythm. It’s not ornate. The music had to be rhythmic enough to sustain a dance for hours and hours.”
           
Newfoundland dance is wickedly fast and complex, done traditionally without the benefit of a caller. Dancing was the entertainment. And a fiddler or accordion player was expected to sustain the whole thing solo. Musicians would add things here and there to the tunes, to accommodate the figure of the dance. Crooked tunes abound.
           
A Newfoundland “single” is often described as “like a polka” but played devilishly fast. “It’s in 2/4, but you feel it in 1,” Bartellas explains, tapping an open palm on her chest. “Doubles,” she quips, “are jigs on speed.” Certain reels are called “triples.” And, of course, there are regular jigs, reels and waltzes, polkas, slides and hornpipes.
           
“On top of it all, it’s metrically interesting,” Bartellas says. “And the bowing — it’s the rhythm-maker.”
           

           
Not very long ago, Newfoundland’s musical heritage was gravely endangered.
           
When an 18-year-old Kelly Russell picked up the fiddle in the mid-’70s, he was an oddity in his generation. “We had just come through an era in Newfoundland when people were casting off the old ways and embracing the American culture,” Russell said. “The stuff that was coming from Hollywood and Nashville was considered to be much better music and culture than our own. My generation, in the ’70s, realized that we had a very valuable culture of our own here in Newfoundland and had to do something to keep it alive.”
           
Russell took his fiddle and a cassette recorder, got into his silver Chevy pickup, and went scouring the island for the old fiddlers. Some had not played in years, since people had stopped dancing. Some he had to coax, knee-to-knee, to remember one more old tune. Among those he recorded are Emile Benoit and Rufus Guinchard, considered to be the grandfathers of the Newfoundland tradition. He painstakingly transcribed those cassettes. The result is the main source for Newfoundland fiddle tunes. Figgy Duff, the band in which Russell played, would blend traditional music with contemporary arrangements and share Newfoundland’s music with a wider music-loving audience.
           
When Russell hears the Dardanelles play a set they call “Josephine’s Jigs” it is with more than a little satisfaction. That was a pair of nameless tunes (“Old Jig #4 and Old Jig #6”)  that Russell “got from” Emile Benoit in Black Duck Brook.           
 
“I’ve seen a lot of good singers and good players ignore the Newfoundland repertoire,” Russell says. “And the Dardanelles have come along and said ‘What do you mean ignore this stuff? This stuff is fantastic!’… Not only are they all really good players, but they’ve got something that sometimes really good players don’t have. There’s a fire in the music, this savage energy in how they play, and the joy…and that’s infectious to the audience. If they were full-time at this, goodness knows they could be huge.” (The Dardanelles are not, as it happens, full-time — Matthew Byrne, singer and instrumentalist, recently released his second solo CD, Bartellas has med school and her project with Collis, bodhran player Rich Klaas has a day job in St. John’s, and Power is working in Toronto.)
           
Smith credits Bartellas with helping to spur new interest in the music. “The Newfoundland tunes are becoming more and more popular now,” Smith said, “and she’s really given it a big boost amongst her generation.”
 

 
[To read the rest of this article, purchase the Spring 2015 issue.]
 
For more information: www.collisandtellas.com/music/.
In addition to audio files of several tunes, transcriptions of all the tunes on their debut CD are available free of charge.
 
[Lois R. Shea is an independent writer and editor who lives in New Hampshire. She is a former Boston Globe staff writer and winner of two Public Radio News Directors’ awards for commentary. She is a novice fiddler, but parent of a pro. New Hampshire’s Dudley Laufman is the author of her license plate tag: FIDLMOM. She adores Newfoundland.]