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Newfoundland grandmothers can wail on the accordion. A historian wants them on stage

Heidi Coombs, poses for a picture playing a Concertina on Signal Hill overlooking St. John's on Sunday, May 19, 2024. (Paul Daly/The Canadian Press) Heidi Coombs, poses for a picture playing a Concertina on Signal Hill overlooking St. John's on Sunday, May 19, 2024. (Paul Daly/The Canadian Press)
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If there's a circle of Newfoundlanders gathered in someone's kitchen in the fishing community of Flatrock, there's a good chance Madonna Wilkinson is the focal point, snapping her fingers to cue the next song she'll sing and play on her accordion.

The 79-year-old has been playing the instrument since she was 15, when she picked one up that had been left behind at one of her parents' rollicking parties in the oceanside town about 25 kilometres north of St. John's, N.L. She has played Sunday masses and St. Patrick's Day parties, and community events of all kinds.

"You're invited to a lot of parties and they'll say, 'Bring your accordion!'" Wilkinson said in a phone interview, laughing. "I still love it. Music can do a lot of wonders for you. That's what I feel, anyway."

Wilkinson is exactly the kind of person historian and musician Heidi Coombs had in mind when she and two friends launched I'se Not the B'y, a monthly performance session for women, non-binary and gender-diverse musicians playing traditional Newfoundland music at a downtown St. John's pub.

"I used to notice as soon as I'd say the word 'accordion' people would say, 'My nan played the accordion!'" 49-year-old Coombs said in a recent interview. "That, combined with my personal experience of very few women at the sessions here in town, got me thinking, if everyone has a grandmother who played accordion, why are there so few women at the sessions?"

Both Coombs and Wilkinson say they grew up in musical families in rural Newfoundland. Wilkinson said that when she was a little girl, her father would gather her and her two sisters in the living room, and they'd dance while he played the harmonica and her mother cooked Sunday dinner.

She bought herself her very own instrument when she was 19, using her very first paycheque from what became a 32-year teaching career. It was a second-hand button accordion, and it cost $20 — an extravagance at the time. "That was an awful thing, paying $20 for an accordion!" she said, laughing.

Coombs remembers her grandmother playing accordion when she was a child, and her father is a drummer. Her parents had the radio on every Saturday morning, listening to the Newfoundland music programs. She learned to play piano, guitar and bodhran, which is a traditional Irish drum.

It wasn't until she moved to New Brunswick for a few years as an adult that she really understood how central Newfoundland music was to the island's culture — how it becomes the social glue at so many events, from house parties to the lakeside dancing at the Royal St. John's Regatta.

But when Coombs moved back home, she found it hard to join the downtown sessions, where people get up on stage and play music together without any invitation or prior booking. Though she had played at plenty of sessions in New Brunswick, Coombs said she felt intimidated by the calibre of the music in St. John's and by how male-dominated the stage often was.

Wilkinson says she was more focused on family than on performing, though she did play a few times on stage with Shanneyganock, a successful Newfoundland trad rock band.

"That was my only bit of fame," she said. "I enjoyed being on stage, I wasn't shy or anything .... I just didn't get the opportunity."

Wilkinson raised three children — a daughter and two sons — and she now has six grandchildren. When she retired from teaching schoolchildren, she began teaching seniors how to play the accordion.

She said it's been a joy to find through TikTok that many other Newfoundland women play the instrument, and many younger people are picking it up, too.

Newfoundland nans playing the accordion is definitely "a thing," Coombs said. She recently began a research project about them, and she said Wilkinson's story is familiar. Many of these women focused on raising families, but were celebrated players in their communities.

Minnie White, Newfoundland's "first lady of the accordion," is perhaps the most well-known example, Coombs said. White recorded several albums and toured the province, but not until she was in her 50s and had finished raising her children. She was on stage well into her 80s, before she died in 2001.

And while Newfoundland's nans of the accordion are part of Coombs' inspiration for the I'se Not the B'y sessions, which take place on the first Sunday of every month at The Ship pub in St. John's, she said the point is to create a welcoming, inclusive spot for every woman, non-binary and gender-diverse trad player, no matter what instrument they play.

She and her co-creators of the event, Than Brown and Heather Patey, are trying to "build critical mass," she said. "There's so many women and gender-diverse folks who sit at home by themselves playing their instruments, and there hasn't been a space like this for them to get together."

Wilkinson was thrilled by the idea. If she could get a ride into town, she said she'd go in a heartbeat.

"I think it's wonderful," she said. "I'd love that."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 20, 2024

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