FOGO ISLAND -
Gerald Freake of Fogo Island is a retired school teacher whose love of the button accordion and whose insight into the potential of some local children, brought the Fogo Island Accordion Group to realization.
That group had an active history from 1991 to 1998. Since that time Gerald has moved on to other ventures. He and his wife run a bed and breakfast in Fogo and spend time in both Fogo Island and Portugal Cove.
Gerald says, "I'm all about tradition," and when he began forging his path to instill a love for Newfoundland music in youngsters he decided to start an accordion group.
He posted a notice at the school where he taught, and five eager Grade 6 girls from Joe Batt's Arm signed up. For the next seven years, under Gerald's tutelage and management, these girls played together and travelled together doing performances across Newfoundland and throughout mainland Canada.
The group was well-loved and earned Gerald and the girls significant recognition. But like kids everywhere, the five girls grew up, graduated high school, pursued post-secondary educations, and settled and started families at various locations across the country.
Newfoundland is a province with a folk music heritage based on Irish, English, and Scottish traditions brought here centuries ago. Much of the region's music that has evolved within Newfoundland, focuses on the strong seafaring traditions of the people who dwelled here.
According to Gerald when it comes to Newfoundland music "it has to be about the accordion." His dad played the accordion and Gerald grew up around it. When he was a child the accordion was the only instrument around, "every household had one."
But he felt that its presence in the lives of Newfoundlanders was waning.
"What saddens me is that the accordion is being put on the back burner, if the accordion's not there then there's something missing... it has to be there playing a part," he said.
And it did indeed have an active resurgence with the Fogo Island Accordion Group.
Gerald continues to teach accordion to this day. He went on to teach other children, most notably at a school on the Labrador coast, but the kind of process he engaged in with the girls and the Fogo Island Accordion Group was very special.
"I don't know if it would work now if I tried to do the same thing," he said. "Kids have so many distractions these days."
While he does continue to teach children when requested, he says "I find it a whole lot easier working with adults now." The oldest person he taught was 81. Most people he teaches now are around 60 years old, and many of them "say they just want to learn enough to pass on the desire to their grandchildren."
As part of Gerald's ongoing desire to keep tradition alive, he has developed accordion lessons through books and videos. He has also made DVDs about Fogo Island using video footage he has accumulated over the years. These videos are his record of the place, the lifestyle, and the people. They include Gerald's music combined with imagery of square dancers, views of the island, mummers, kitchen parties and numerous local people.
As someone who is interested in keeping tradition alive, Gerald has been observing what is happening in the community in relation to the role of the Shorefast Foundation.
"It's obvious that Shorefast is attracting people to Fogo Island and I applaud them for that," he said. "I would like visitors to come and experience what our Island has to offer especially in reference to our heritage and culture.
"It pleases me to see that Shorefast has portrayed this already by restoring older homes and other buildings, reviving the art of boat building, farming, and storytelling."
Another thing Gerald notes is that it is very important to get these skills incorporated as part of the school curriculum and unfortunately traditional Newfoundland music has not been a part of it. As such, Gerald had to develop his accordion teaching outside of school hours. However, the high school now includes boat building as part of the school curriculum, so his hope is there are other traditional skills and knowledge that will also become a part of the student's life on Fogo Island.
Of all of Gerald's projects he has the most stories to tell about the Fogo Island Accordion Group. He speaks of the girls and the time the group was together with poignancy; it was a significant part of his life. He speaks of the girls' achievements with pride and his voice is full of emotion as he recalls the fun and silliness and the significance of the era of the group.
Only one of the five accordion girls has returned to live on Fogo Island, Melanie Penton. She's a nurse at the hospital on Fogo Island and just had her first baby, Eva, on Feb. 15. Melanie says she definitely plans to teach Eva the accordion when she's a bit older.
Melanie said, "I'm sure if there was any way for Gerald to be able to teach our kids, he would."
Angie is the only other member of the group in Newfoundland, she's a biomedical engineer in Grand Falls-Windsor, and she just had her first baby on March 11. The other girls are spread across the country. Heather is a teacher in Grand Prairie, Alberta. Serena is a nurse in Halifax, and Jennifer is a teacher in New Brunswick.
The girls keep in touch with each other a couple of times a year, and catch up with Gerald from time to time also. With 2010 being 'Come Home Year' for Joe Batt's Arm, perhaps there might be an opportunity for the girls to all get together with their children this summer, for a reunion and a chance to play together one more time. It would undoubtedly be a significant occasion for Fogo Island, and a testament to the potential of 'tradition' to bind community.
To find out more about Gerald and his CDs, DVDs, and teaching materials see: