Caribbean musician provides an outsider’s perspective on Newfoundland life

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A report by Stephen Roberts for The Telegram.

Every year, Barbados musician Desmond Burke finds himself drawn back to the island of Newfoundland.

He’s been visiting now for each of the last six years, staying in Port au Choix. It’s the history, the people the traditions, the music, and the environment that keeps bringing him back.

Eighty-two-year-old Burke hails from Bridgetown, Barbados. He is a professional recording artist who first started writing his own songs in the 1950s. He has established a long-term relationship with the land, known as the Rock.

It all started in his home country when he first came to meet Carolyn Lavers, mayor of Port au Choix, who was visiting with a mutual friend during a vacation.

After their friend passed away, Lavers continued to visit and their friendship grew.

He finally came to Newfoundland, with his wife Georgette in 2012 to take in all the sites. They have stayed at Lavers’ home every year since. Burke says if he’s alive and well in 2018, “so shall it be” that they’ll be returning.

This summer, they visited from June 29 to July 23. Before they left, the Northern Pen spoke with Desmond Burke about his experiences here and the connections between Newfoundland and Barbados.

The history, the people and the land

During his stays in Newfoundland, Burke has been given the opportunity to travel across the province, visiting St. John’s, Fogo Island and St. Anthony and many places in between. It has given him a broader perspective of life on the island.

“It’s beautiful, it’s a very, very unique island,” Burke said.

He is fascinated by the history of the province – in the area of Port au Choix he has grown interested in the Indigenous peoples who lived there hundreds of years ago.

“To be there, where all these things took place, is very impressive,” he said.

Burke wishes more people took the time to discover the province of Newfoundland and Labrador because of its uniqueness and beauty. Then there is the eagerness of the people to share their way of living with you that he admires so much as well.

“The people are from another age, they’re friendly, they’re courteous, they’re there to help, they’re there to explain about themselves, their place, about the island,” he said.

One year a fisherman brought him out to catch his first cod. This is the type of courteousness supplied by the people of the province.

While Burke had caught quite a few fish in his lifetime, he had never caught a cod before. They had to put the cod back, but it was a thrilling experience for him.

“The cod is a fish that the whole world must have heard about through all the centuries, and eaten them and made profits from it — some died getting them, some survived,” he explained. “To catch a cod was a big thing in my life.”

It was being a part of that history, being able to take a small part in an industry that had world historical significance, he explains, that made the experience so special to him.

Burke reflects upon the amount of work people had to put into it, and hard conditions they had to work under even in the month of March. He’s aware of the work the women had to put in at home and also preparing the fish.

This legacy of Newfoundland and Labrador he’s been made privy to and it’s a part of the wonder of the province for him.

Burke on his friendship with Cecilia Smith

In the years since he has started visiting Newfoundland, Desmond Burke has struck up a number of relationships. But one that certainly deserves special recognition for him is the friendship he made with a spirited outdoorswoman named Cecilia Smith of Hawke’s Bay.

Burke had been determined to meet this woman prior to ever stepping foot on the soil of Newfoundland. He had learnt about Smith, who was in her 90s, when she was featured on two episodes of CBC’s “Land and Sea”. The program aired in his country.

She was a big part of his motivation for coming to the Rock.

“[I decided] I really would like to meet her,” said Burke.

Smith’s independence, resilience, and dedication to hard work had left him awestruck. Into her 90s, she had been featured engaging in any kind of manual labour you could imagine: hunting (including bears), carpentry, gardening, and had also worked earlier logging and fishing – she seemed to do everything all on her own.

They got to meet on his first trip to the province. He says the encounter went “extremely well.”

“She was a pleasant lady, real rough and tumble but real pleasant, knowledgeable and beautiful, in matter of fact,” said Burke.

He got to learn all about this woman’s incredible life firsthand.

“We became very, very close,” he added. “She was a very interesting person. She could tell you a lot of history about the times back when the houses were moved across the ice and reconstructions and stuff like that, the way it was in Newfoundland.

“To be with a person who…could explain it to you, who was actually involved in it, it makes it even more interesting – not only the history, but the person who is relating it to you.”

Burke was with her hours before she passed away in June 2016 at the age of 96.

Connections between Barbados and Newfoundland

These two small islands in the Atlantic share more in common than you’d think, according to Desmond Burke.

The big thing is the traditional folk music. While the similarities in the sound of the music may not be immediately apparent, Burke notes that they come from similar traditions and share similar themes and interests.

If anyone would be aware of these similarities, it’s Burke. Back in Barbados he is a popular musician. He performs different genres of music – including blues, jazz, calypso – but he says he specializes in “international folk music”.

Burke is now retired but he started writing and recording music in the 1950s and 1960s. Two of his popular songs, both recorded in the 1960s, are “Sarah” and “The Days are Gone” – the latter being a favourite of his.

These two tracks can be heard together on YouTube.

Burke writes folk music, he says, because it tells of “the people.”

He reflects upon how Newfoundland and the islands of Caribbean had traded with each other many years ago.

“We in the Caribbean produce, especially Barbados, sugarcane and we exported sugar (and molasses and rum) to Newfoundland for many, many years,” he explained. “In the meantime, you got one of the oldest cod trades between Barbados and Newfoundland.”

The story of these trades start with the common people, from both of these lands, who worked on the land and aboard fishing vessels. The folk music of the Caribbean and Newfoundland tell of their lives.

“Folk music is something like geography, it tells you of the people and the place,” he continued. “It tells you of the work, it tells you what the interior of the home looks like, how they used to sit on a bench and how a bench was made. Folk music tells the story of everybody.”

Burke loves Newfoundland music. He is familiar with British and Irish folk music, and he says much of that style of music has not only entered Newfoundland but has trickled down into the Caribbean as well.

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