“For a while,,” Tom Power says, “we were playing a lot of Irish music, Scottish music, and English music, as well as Newfoundland music, and then we realized that Newfoundland music has its own kind of flavour, it has its own rhythm, and its own heart. We liked that music more than anything else we were hearing.”

Tom Power knows a thing or two about folk and roots music. Before becoming the host of CBC Radio 2’s national Deep Roots program, the St. John’s native had his folk awakening as a teenager, stealing his brother’s copy of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack and listening to his parents sing Americana, like the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary. Around that time, bluegrass was his style, but he picked up something brand new after a visit to Ireland.

Duane Andrews said to me, ‘You don’t have to just listen to Irish music. There’s a Newfoundland version of that,’” Power recalled. “I had no idea, so I got really into that, and as the bluegrass band idea went away, I got more into traditional music.”

Tom called me from Toronto, where he now works, but it was clear that the heart of Newfoundland music is still part of his pulse. Which is good news, considering The Dardanelles are one of the most prominent young traditional Newfoundland bands playing today. IN fact, they’re headlining 2014’s Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival alongside Gord Downie. Joined by vocalist and bouzouki player Matthew Byrne, bodhran player Rich Klaas, accordionist Aaron Collis, and Emilia Bartellas on fiddle, the Dardanelles have gone from a revolving door of local players to a consistent lineup whose last album, The Eastern Light, is a gem of tunes and story-songs from this province’s musical past, performed by a group that are part of an unmistakable wave of musicians making up Newfoundland’s musical future.


Shortly after Placentia Bay native Matthew Byrne released his first solo effort, Ballads, he was recruited to play bouzouki for The Dardanelles, at a gig no less prestigious than the Winnipeg Folk Festival. Before that point, the band’s setlist had been made up of instrumental tunes from the province’s songbook, but a new voice gave rise to the current sound of The Dardanelles. “He would get up and sing an unaccompanied ballad, and he would teach us a couple of songs from his record, and then over time we realized that we really wanted to play that kind of music too, it’s just we didn’t have anybody to sing it,” Power admitted.

“Frankly, we have the best guy to sing it in the province. It’s been a really wonderful transition – the whole foundation of the band, since day one, has been just playing this music because we love it.” It was this shared love of traditional Newfoundland music that has, over the past eight years, taken The Dardanelles throughout the province, to collect whatever interesting songs and stories they could find and attempt to bring them to a new audience. Power rhymed off the usual arsenal of traditional songs he knew growing up — “The Star of Logy Bay,” “Jack was Every Inch a Sailor,” “Harbour Le Cou” — and explained how it was the more obscure pieces, from cassette tapes, Kelly Russell, or a song binder belonging to Matthew Byrne’s mother, that really interested the band.

“You’d think, because we don’t write the songs or the tunes, it would be easier to get this music together. But then there’s a different kind of challenge –the focus for us eventually became trying to find some tunes that aren’t getting played as much anymore – and that could be a tune that never got played, that stayed in its community, or a tune that was really popular but doesn’t get played as much anymore. It’s challenging, but it’s very fun.”

He’s quick to point out, however, that this approach is not based on a sense of duty or responsibility to preserve songs that might otherwise go unheard or get forgotten. As it was in 2006, when the first manifestation of  The Dardanelles started playing, it’s about the love of the music. “If we go to a festival in Canada where Great Big Sea have played, and Rufus Guinchard has played, and Kelly Russell has played, and Figgy Duff have played, you do start sometimes to feel like the next link in that chain. But the more you think about that, the more you drive yourself out of your head. You’re better off just thinking about the music. We’re playing this music because we really, really like it, and we think it’s amazing. We want our music to be heard in the same way that Hey Rosetta! or Repartee want their music to be heard – because we think it’s good.”


In speaking about the generations of great folk performers in Newfoundland, it begged the question of whether the current prominence of young traditional musicians — including The Dardanelles, the Once, and the Freels — is part of a predictable cycle, or whether it’s indicative of a new resurgence and revitalization of trad music. Power acknowledged that acoustic music has never been as popular as it is now since the 1960s, but believes that what is happening in Newfoundland is even more specific than that. “In St. John’s, I have noticed it, and I think now the good work that was done by people like Fergus O’Byrne and the Young Folk at the Hall, by the Newfoundland Folk Festival with the Neil Murray Stage, by Christina Smith with the STEP Fiddlers, by Korona Brophy and the Celtic Fiddlers, is being seen,” he said.

“These were all programs where they took very young people and taught them how to play traditional music and what it was and, more importantly, where to meet other people who played it. If you liked playing accordion, you all of a sudden didn’t feel so alone. I think that’s starting to bear fruit, so now you’re seeing bands like us that came from that, and you’re seeing a wide acceptance of that kind of music in the younger demographic.”

With an increased acceptance and interest in Newfoundland folk music, however, the demands on a traditional player are inevitably increased. Besides Power’s radio job and playing guitar for Toronto bands, Matthew Byrne is gearing up to release his second solo album, Aaron Collis and Emilia Bartellas just released their own side project of Newfoundland instrumental tunes, and Rich Klaas is involved in the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. Still, the band is managing to play more shows than ever before (they’ve got an upcoming tour of the United Kingdom this April), and are finding time whenever and wherever they can to work on new material. Although the performances tend to be more theatre shows than the “sweaty, dancey shows” that they cut their teeth on in downtown St. John’s, the real thing to take away from a Dardanelles show is that Newfoundland music is something special, right here and right now.

“The highest words have come from Kelly Russell, when he said, ‘Every couple of years, there’s a band that comes out that preserves this music or plays it when no one else is playing it. The Dardanelles just happen to be really, really good at it.’ And it was the really, really good at it part that we took away from it, and meant the world to us, not the preserving part. We want to give a concert of good music because it’s good, and not good music because it’s important.”

That good music is what keeps the heart beating as strong as ever.

As of this morning, The Dardanelles are heading back from a UK tour. You can catch them at some of the summer’s hottest events, like this year’s Folk Festival and Writers at Woody Point Festival.