Breaking the ice in Newfoundland

9 Apr 2012

By Leila Marshy
The Montreal Gazette

You can’t go to Newfoundland without diving headlong into the music scene. Bars and pubs are crawling with local talent on any given night.

When the last of the pack ice disappears and St. John’s harbour readies itself for summer traffic, one might be lucky enough to see an iceberg making its way behind the ships. The glaciers begin their parade down “iceberg alley” each April, slow moving and stately like German opera singers. It’s a kind of magic, spotting one.

And with, no need to rely on serendipity. Plan your trip to coincide with No. 104209, currently hobnobbing off the Labrador coast and heading due south. If you do catch sight, celebrate with a Quidi Vidi Iceberg beer in your hands. The local micro-brewer boasts that it is made with “25,000-year-old iceberg water harvested from Newfoundland’s awe-inspiring icebergs.”

Given that pedigree, a 100-year anniversary might not seem like much. Nonetheless, it was in 1912 that the great ship Titanic sank less than 650 kilometres to the south, dashed and humbled by a 140-metre icy beast. Whether said iceberg continued on to melt in the warmth of a protected bay, we’ll never know.

But deadly icebergs haunt The Rooms, the whimsical cultural centre named after the “fishing rooms” where families processed their catch. RMS Titanic: Relics of Disaster, opening April 12, brings together artifacts, documents and images associated with what remains of one of the worst peacetime maritime disasters ever.

Breaking a different kind of ice

As ubiquitous as ice and icebergs is the music. You can’t go to Newfoundland without diving headlong into the music. Much of that music is the rich Irish-, Scottish- and French-based fiddle jig, or the frolicking rock that Great Big Sea both inspires and leads. Bars and pubs are crawling with enough local talent on any given night to make you reconsider The Beatles or Lady Gaga.

Lawnya Vawnya, which the Dictionary of Newfoundland English would have you know means “you’re ready to have a good time at a dance party with plenty to eat,” is the name of a festival of music and poetry, now in its second year, being held in St. John’s April 18-22. Lawnya Vawnya’s lineup includes more than 30 musical artists, including Cadence Weapon, Julie Doiron, the Inbreds and Toronto’s exquisite The Weather Station. The Lawnya Vawnya poetry readings, less noisy but equally popular, are co-sponsored by Coach House Press. Along with Newfoundland poets Mark Callanan and Kerri Cull, the readings also include Montrealers Gabe Foreman and Joshua Trotter.

A little off the beaten track is the International Festival of New Music and Performing Art, known as the Sound Symposium, a St. John’s-based biennial celebration of new sound and new music. From July 9-15, they are promising “Nine days that will make you change the way you hear the world!” While this summer’s schedule is not yet listed, past lineups included musicians and performing artists from such divergent places as Germany, Egypt, Israel, Kenya, Australia and Montreal. Among the program themes are the Cape Spear Project, “performance on the ocean at the most eastern point in North America,” and World Sound, a celebration of world music.

The Buskers Festival promises to liven up the streets of St. John’s on August 4 and 5. Last year’s show featured such names as Flexible Comedy, Thom Sellectomy, the Trulee Odd Show, and the Ernest the Magnifico. On three stages, this international festival makes busking almost respectable. Almost.

Then, if you hurry – but careful, moose take their crossings slowly – you can catch the Gros Morne Summer Music festival on the west coast, just north of Corner Brook. The festival runs from mid-July to the end of August, and the focus is on classical music. However, in a pattern that anyone familiar with the Montreal Jazz Festival will recognize, it has grown to embrace jazz, blues, rock and traditional folk from around the world. “I’m a little surprised we’re still here,” says founder David Maggs. “This festival was an experiment.”

Make your way back to St. John’s in early August for the Tuckamore Festival. Named after the thick, tangled forests growing horizontally along the coasts – the better to escape the salt spray – this festival offers up a rich program of chamber music by emerging and established musicians.

Other festivals lining the summer months are the Wreckhouse International Jazz and Blues Festival (St. John’s, July); Fish, Fun and Folk (Twillingate, July); and the Exploits Valley Salmon Festival (Grand Falls, July). The latter is busy hyping headline artists Aerosmith and Cheap Trick. And then there’s the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival, Aug. 3-5 in St. John’s, celebrating its 36th year this summer.

An iceberg, a cold drink and something to tap your feet to. Now, that’s a trip.

If You Go

Iceberg Finder:

Quidi Vidi Brewery:

The Rooms:

Lawnya Vawnya:

Gros Morne Summer Music festival:

Tuckamore Festival:

Wreckhouse International Jazz and Blues Festival:

Fish, Fun & Folk Festival:

Newfoundland & Labrador Folk Festival: