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island conversations
podcast series

"Island Notes" composition in Cretan Flat Mandolin by Christophoro Gorantokaki @"Melody Box"

Welcome to SICRI’s “island conversations” podcast series.

The aim of these podcasts is to highlight the work of island studies scholars and practitioners who make a significant contribution to islands’ research, arts, and culture landscape.

The podcasts are accompanied by a curated transcript that is edited to read as an independent piece.

Solène Prince: In this podcast we will hear from Meghan Forsyth from Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada. Meghan is Assistant Professor of Ethnomusicology in the School of Music, and she's acting director of the Research Center for the Study of Music, Media and Place. She currently specializes in the instrumental music and dance traditions of the Acadian diaspora in Francophone North Atlantic. Meghan has a fascinating profile. During her career she has researched and written about the culture of people of different islands of the North Atlantic. She is the recipient of many grants and awards that have supported her in doing innovative research in musicology and islands. Through a master's research project, she produced an archive of Shetland instrumental music for the British Library. She's behind the multimedia exhibit and website "www.danseacadienne.ca" on Acadiean set and step dance traditions on Prince Edward Island. She is also the co-producer of a traveling multimedia exhibit, "Songs and stories of the Newfoundland foresters." Her current research into Island cultures focuses on the social history of instrumental music of les Iles de la Madeleine, in the province of Quebec (Canada). Her research on islands is published in various journals such as Journal of the Society for American Music, Shima, MUSICultures, and Canadian Folk Music. She is co-author with Dr. Ursula Kelly of The Music of Our Burnished Axes: Songs and Stories of the Woodworkers of Newfoundland and Labrador (2018). Meghan holds a doctorate from University of Toronto. Importantly, on top of all these wonderful achievements, Meghan's a fiddler and violinist.

 

Meghan, welcome and thank you for participating in this podcast series. Let's start with me asking you about your connection to SICRI. So, what brought you to SICRI? And what are some insights you have to offer about SICRI's contribution to island studies?

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Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve, Newfoundland and Labrador (Canada).

Photo by Wilco van Eikeren, 2013.

Meghan Forsyth: Thanks, Solène. I'm really thrilled to be here. My beginnings with SICRI were actually at the third international small island conference that was held in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island in 2007. My family had just moved to PEI, so it was a fortuitous coincidence that I was there, or that I could be there at that same time. I had just begun my doctoral research on Island Acadian music, this was one of my very first academic presentations and so I remember SICRI very fondly from that experience. It was a wonderful group of people to meet and I learned just so much. It really opened my eyes to this world of islands and I have never turned back. I just found SICRI such a wonderful, interdisciplinary network of people interested in islands and island studies. And then that network and also the Shima journal really helped me to better understand islands and the people who live on them and islands studies more broadly. So, I'm really thrilled to be now on the advisory board for SICRI.

 

That's fantastic to hear. So, can you tell me about your personal island connections? Maybe you can share some memories of growing up on an island or you have a story of an island that is special to you. How did these experiences shape your identity and worldview and subsequently your own research on islands?

 

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East Coast Trail, Tors Cove, Newfoundland and Labrador (Canada).

Photo by Meghan Forsyth, 2021.

I feel like I inadvertently fell into islands studies and that I've been island hopping ever since. I don't seem to stop - I seem to be drawn to islands, as I think many of my friends in SICRI are as well. Right now, as you mentioned, I'm living and working on the island of Newfoundland in the province of Newfoundland Labrador, which is Canada's most easterly province. It's also the ancestral homelands of the Mi'kmaq and the Beothuk here on the island portion of the province, and the Inuit of Labrador and the Inuit of Nunatsiavut which is the autonomous area of Labrador, which is the mainland portion of the province. It's an interesting place to live because we do have this mainland and island connection within the same province which is unique in some ways to Canada.

 

My island connections started during my master's research. I had played fiddle for many years in a Scottish country dance band in Lethbridge, Alberta, which is a totally landlocked place in Western Canada. And I was thinking about interesting projects that I might do for my master's work. I was really interested in ethnomusicology and I was interested in fiddling traditions just because I had played for a long time. And I was interested in traveling to Scotland, which is where my ancestors come from on both sides of my family. One of my bandmates, who is a Scottish drummer, told me [...] these incredible stories about Shetland and about Shetland music and he said, "You have to go there." And he just didn't let up... story after story and I was just hooked. I just thought I need to go to this place. And he told me that if I went to a particular fiddle and accordion festival in Perth, which is in the central part of Scotland, I'd most likely meet some Shetland musicians and I would get some connections. So, to make a long story short, several years later, after I had backpacked around Australia and New Zealand, and I started my graduate work in Cambridge in England, I went to Perth, and he was right. He was totally right. I met a bunch of wonderful Shetland musicians and it just sort of snowballed from there. [...] I arrived in Shetland on the eve of Up Helly Aa, which is this fascinating Viking festival that happens in January.

 

So that you know, [I had] just began my master's research and in the meantime, my family moved from landlocked Alberta in Western Canada, to the island of Prince Edward Island, in Atlantic Canada. I know many SICRI friends have been to PEI. It's the most gentle, green, rolling, beautiful place. I met by chance some Francophone Acadian musicians at an event while I was visiting my family. As you well know, because you are also Acadian, which is a fortuitous coincidence, Acadians are descendants of the first French settlers in parts of Atlantic Canada and the Acadian diaspora, which I study, now extends from Atlantic Canada, to Louisiana and Europe, to the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic. And, again, I was just so moved by... these characters that I met, their music, their stories, and the way that they expressed themselves and their music and the dancing that I saw at this event that ...that really just had me hooked. Since then, I've moved to Newfoundland, ... so I just seem to kind of keep hopping along to all these different islands. So those are, I guess, my beginnings in islands.

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Tintamarre (parade), Congrès mondial acadien (Acadian World Congress).

Photo by Meghan Forsyth, 2019.  

Alright, your beginning in living on islands and studying them. I suppose all of this shows what brought you to island studies. Do you consider yourself an island studies scholar or an ethnomusicologist who also researches island music and culture?

 

That's an interesting question. I tend to think of myself as an ethnomusicologist who studies island music and culture. But ethnomusicology is an inherently interdisciplinary field of study. I think that's why I feel at home in island studies because the conversations are just always so interdisciplinary.  [...] that's been really one of the highlights for me so. That's how I kind of position myself in island studies.

 

I've briefly mentioned some of your accomplishments and projects in my little introduction of you, but please tell us more about the islands you focus on and the research you've done there.

 

Well, as I mentioned, my research in Shetland was really my first major research experience and I was interested, at that point, based on the musicians that I first met, I was interested in contemporary composition and performance practices in the Shetland fiddle tradition, and there hadn't been much written about Shetland. There had been a very well-known historical study by Dr. Peter Cooke. [...] I think he wrote it in the late 1970s. But there just seemed there was so much more to tell and that that was really my focus. And you know, Shetland is this Scottish archipelago, located between Scotland and Norway, and it's about a 12-hour ferry trip from Aberdeen. And I was really intrigued by the way that most Shetlanders that I met identify so strongly with their Norwegian heritage, as opposed to the Scottish connections. The Up Helly Aa festival - that I mentioned earlier - is a great example, because the communities spend all year building ...in these kinds of squads - and a group spends all year building a replica Viking ship. This happens in communities all over Shetland. They make costumes and they learn songs. Up Helly Aa [...] lasts about an entire week but the main event goes from 8pm to 8am, on the third Tuesday of January, and this all comes together in a fire festival in the middle of the night where they ceremoniously burn the replica ship. They have a giant party and it's filled with music and dancing. It really just was the most fantastic experience. I didn't sleep for, I think, 36 hours.

 

So I was curious about how those relationships played out in music, you know, how do people express these connections to different places? And how did it play out in the music that was being played and the musical choices that were being made and the kind of compositions that people were creating. There was, and still is, a really vibrant musical tradition that's being carried out in all kinds of interesting ways by younger generations of fiddlers. There are some really fantastic composers such as a woman named Debbie Scott from the island, a very small island, of Papa Stour. Debbie has been strongly influenced by music from Norway. For example, like the Hardanger fiddle tradition, the style in the form of traditional Norwegian fiddle tunes and songs, and a lot of her compositions reflect this - they're kind of this interesting mix. I just wanted to better understand...those kinds of motivations and the connections that people had, and the way in which music and identity are so deeply intertwined. So my early work was really around this idea of identity and how this was articulated through music.

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Up Helly Aa, Lerwick, Shetland, 2019.

Photo by Roy Mullay, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

And people, you know, were just always so generous. It always has amazed me that people are so generous with teaching me their music, their tunes and telling me their stories. Thanks to that generosity, I was able to finish my studies in England, and I eventually moved back to Canada, and visited my parents and had this chance encounter with these Acadian musicians on PEI, which sent me down a totally new research path. 

 

I never thought that I would live or work or study in Atlantic Canada and I ended up doing my doctoral research on Acadian fiddle traditions on Prince Edward Island. For me, it was interesting. I hadn't learned - maybe because I did a lot of my schooling in Western Canada, where there are not huge groups of Acadians - there are small pockets here and there, but I hadn't learned about Acadian history in school and this history of the expulsions in the 18th century, and this perseverance of this group of people and the emergence of a huge Acadian diaspora. I only knew vaguely that there were some communities of French-speaking people east of Quebec. I'm almost embarrassed to say that now but that that really that was what I understood about French Canada. And so my research really taught me that there was so much more about this minority cultural and linguistic group. These musicians, the music, and other traditions that are just so vibrant. And this web of connections that they're part of as part of this, this diaspora. 

 

So, that was really the beginning of that research and one of those strong connections is to les Iles de la Madeleine (or the Magdalen Islands) of Quebec, which is this archipelago. It's closest to the eastern tip of PEI. So there's a lot of sort of cross-pollination and exchange between the Maggies, as they're affectionately known. And the Maggies are 95% Francophone Acadian as opposed to PEI which is maybe 4-5%, Francophone Acadian or Acadian and French-speaking. [...] I did some ethnographic research in the Magdalen Islands during my PhD work and it was just the most remarkable place, it's like a little slice of paradise. And I'm sure everyone who studies islands says something like that about the places they visit, but it truly just blew me away. It was just the most remarkable place. So [...] thanks to the generosity of so many people, I was able to finish my PhD research and then I decided to do a postdoc focusing on the instrumental music traditions of the Maggies, and ...one of my focuses was on improvisation in the tradition so that I was just struck by how much ...the improvised quality of a lot of the music and the kinds of stories that people told about the history of their music. That became the focus of that research. So my research, I guess, on Acadian music has expanded to look more at these kinds of connections between places, and especially about the diaspora and how this identity... sense of identity and place is expressed. That is that kind of work kind of what I've been doing most recently.

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Les Pêcheurs, Site de La Côte, l’Étang-du-Nord, Îles-de-la-Madeleine, Québec (Canada).

Photo by Annik Martin, 2012. 

It's so fantastic to hear you talk about the Acadians of East Coast Canada. As you mentioned, that's my heritage [...] So it's fantastic to see you talk with enthusiasm, and I don't feel insulted that you didn't know about these French speaking people east of Quebec. It's a very small group. But it's great that some people are interested in their culture. I also want to know more about your field of research. You've mentioned the importance of identity and culture in studying music, can you tell us a little more about ethnomusicology and its relation to island studies? [...] why do you think that islands are important to study in your field?

 

I think ethnomusicology aims to understand not only WHAT music is, like the sounds and how people are producing the sounds, but I think most importantly, WHY it is; [...] what it means to people... and maybe even more than that, how it reflects and references and inflects our human condition as people and as social beings. Ethnomusicologists view music as a human activity that's shaped by their social and cultural environments. And ethnomusicologist have studied islands, island cultures all over the world, with the goal of understanding how people see their world and how they can articulate their kind of worldview through musical forms and, and how music [...] can articulate their worldview through musical forms, but also how the music contributes to that. I think that [...] island cultures are just fascinating places to study as like incubators of tradition. But there's all also, I think, a misconception, at least in my experience, that islands are isolated from other influences are somehow that ... music and other traditions emerge in some kind of vacuum. That's probably true...in some places, in some ways [...] but in my experience, the idea of islands as meeting places, and as springboards to other places, is certainly I would say more true.

 

[...] All the places that I've worked in, there's a huge flow of people and ideas and in terms of music and musical styles and repertoire. This shapes the tradition in those places where I've worked, even something like radio frequencies, right, and who was able to get a particular radio frequency, you know, if you lived on one part of Prince Edward Island, you got the radio frequency from Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. And that had a huge effect on the kind of repertoire that people were learning and the kind of sounds that they aim to produce. Whereas in other places, they didn't have the same influences. Some had more influences from New Brunswick, and it really just depended on sort of, it's like the Silk Road but in Atlantic Canada for music, and [...] who was traveling on what roads and who could get the radio frequencies. [...] people I've met on islands, like they're always traveling, whether they're out on their fishing boats and singing on their boats and exchanging things - you know, music with other people in the course of a day or just traveling, a lot of professional musicians traveling various places to different festivals and bringing home lots of different musical ideas. But people are listening really widely, right? They're really active listeners, and this informs their music and traditions back home. I think that research that kind of teases out these ideas and the kind of nuances that story that we tell about how people live is...that's a contribution, I think, that ethnomusicologists can bring to island studies. So, yes,I think that's kind of what I've been thinking a lot about that. 

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North Rustico beach, P.E.I. (Canada).

Photo by Meghan Forsyth, 2021.

You mentioned in the introduction this work that I've been doing on the woods songs of Newfoundland and Labrador. I think that's a case where, I'm here living on the island of Newfoundland in the middle of this rock, huge rock in the middle of the North Atlantic, and it's brought about these other research opportunities. The story of this place has been so heavily linked to the sea, right? Sea shanties, stories about the sea, you know, people really identify very strongly with the port, with the sea, with fishing. And there's been lots of upheaval here in terms of the cod moratorium and, and various other things over the course of the last 50 years and more. That's one piece of the story of this place, but there's also a lot of other stories that have been kind of pushed to the sidelines.

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Timber Cove, Brigus South, view from the East Coast Trail, Newfoundland and Labrador (Canada).

Photo by Meghan Forsyth, 2020.

Since 2014, I've been involved in a collaborative research project on the songs and stories of the woodworkers from this province, Newfoundland and Labrador. What we've learned is, and we knew this I guess going into it, but it is not a widely told piece of the province's history around this extensive story related to the woods, right, to the central part of the island and to Labrador as well. For example, like cutting wood, and driving logs, and millwork, and all these things, and it's really been a piece that's been sorely neglected. There's also a part of that narrative about woods work, what is told about woods work has often been focused almost exclusively on the backbreaking labour of the woods work, the rough living in the woods camps, the inadequate pay and the strikes that went on and the unionization, [...] that's a piece of it, as well. But the woods camps were very creative places where - mainly men, [...] often alone, but sometimes they had families that lived with them - they sang and they played instruments, and they wrote extensively, they wrote songs and poems and stories, and they made things and they played games, and they told jokes, and, you know it was more than just this labour and places of hardship. As a result, there is this huge repertoire of locally composed songs and stories, poems, recitations, I mean, all kinds of things. And it's really amazing. The composers are [...] insightful, and they're funny, they're so funny. You can just tell that they cared so deeply for one another.

 

So this work that I've been doing with my friend and colleague, Ursula Kelly, who's a faculty member in Education here at Memorial has resulted in... we've just tried to tell that story and get it out there. We started out, we collaborated on a CD of archival material that was in some of the archives here. It was a CD of archival material and, and some new recordings. Then we [saw] that was only like a little slice of what we had found, so we decided to put together a book about this story and include all the songs that we had found. We published a book and we've done a series of public presentations, all across the island, in partnership with like musicians and actors trying to just get these songs and stories and poems kind of back into circulation. There's also an international component because a lot of the loggers served overseas in the First and Second World Wars. It's a really fascinating piece of this story, because there are still strong ties to communities near to where the woods camps had been located, mainly in Scotland. We found songs and stories, specifically about those times and in 2018, we created this traveling multimedia exhibit to tell that story. It's now traveling around Scotland and the island of Newfoundland here. Right now we're actually just in the final phases of a new CD of all new recordings of some of the lesser known songs that were included in our book that have never been recorded. We've got some of the provinces best known traditional musicians and singer songwriters reinterpreting these old songs, and that's going to be launched in the fall. I think that idea of sort of  telling those stories has always been something that I've really been drawn to.

 

And those are great stories to tell as well, that people that we might not think about because we're used to think of them in a certain way, but the everyday cultures and the music people produce even though they're not famous composers is still very important to [...] culture. I'm sure this kind of contribution is similar to the one with "danseacadienne". There was also a website and can you tell a little bit more about this?

 

This came out of my doctoral research. My research was really focused on the music, the instrumental music mainly. But in the course of that, I learned a lot about dance. And people were always telling me these stories about the old days when people used to clear out their kitchens except for the woodstove you know, they clear out everything, so they could have a dance in the kitchen and, they would do these set dances, social dancing. Right now on Prince Edward Island, and throughout the Maritime Provinces, step dancing its' [...] really a vibrant tradition. [...] it's something that's really been taken up by younger generations. I gathered all this, all these stories, lots of archival material, and it just kind of happened in the course of my research, but it didn't fit into the PhD dissertation. So when I finished the dissertation, that was a project that I get to help sort of tell that, that piece of it and people were really interested. People really wanted to know about those older traditions and, and hear those stories. We did [it] in partnership with the Musee acadienne de l'Ile-du-Prince-Edouard, the Acadian Museum in Miscouche, in the western part of Prince Edward Island. We did a museum exhibit, and then an accompanying website, kind of a legacy project, which is still available, just to get it out there. We have tons of really fantastic videos and some essays and pictures - the pictures are fantastic.

 

One thing I always loved about the material that we collected is that people took photos at these events, some really fantastic old photos, but they're almost always angled down to the feet. There are so many photos that I collected that people have ... they're cut off at the neck, because people were so focused on what the person was doing with their feet, that they didn't think to take a photo that captured, like, the whole person. I always loved those photos in particular - you kind of get this insight into what people were feeling in that moment, and where they're focused. Like the gaze, right? The gaze of the camera, and where, what they were interested in. That was really a team project, lots of people involved in that and the museum especially, to get that project off the ground.

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Augustine Cove, Borden-Carleton, Prince Edward Island (Canada), 2010.

Photo courtesy of Ward MacDonald.

I think it's great to hear that research can lead to such projects that give back to a community and showcase some, some cultural features like step dancing. 

 

One of the, I guess, problems that we run into is that researchers do all this research and a lot put it in the archive. It's like, there's this idea that the archive is a place of access, but really, there are so many barriers to, at least in the communities that I've been working with, so many barriers to actually accessing material. You have to know what you're looking for, you have to be able to get there, ...it has to be organized in a way you can find what's in there. I feel like some of these projects, both with the woods work and with the step dancing project, it was just a way of, I can go in and I can sort of make sense of it. [...] I could find interesting things with the help of a lot of archivists and other people but we could kind of curate this material in a way that brings it to life for these communities. So, yes ...I really do love that kind of academic work, the public side.

 

Yes, there's not just theoretical, there's a practical side that it keeps you in touch with people. It's so interesting to listen to you and you've mentioned so many great moments from your work, your fieldwork, and I just want to know, is there anything else that you can mention about these great projects or experiences something that stands out?

 

I think we spend a lot of time thinking about people and things like ON the islands. But some of my most memorable experiences in my work and just in life have been in the process of actually getting to islands. I think I feel like this is an area that I might move into where I hope that other island scholars will also sort of move into thinking about - and maybe they are, and I haven't read it yet. But, [...] that process of getting to and from islands, especially on ferries, and you know, I love how people come together on those trips. And, I'm thinking especially the long, long ferry ride - the 12 hour ferry ride - from Aberdeen to Shetland, which was very rough, you know, it's a really rough trip sometimes, but also the short ferry rides..., from PEI to the Magdalen Islands, about a five hour ferry ride, or even from the mainland to PEI, which is like 75 minutes. They're always so memorable. You know, people sitting together, people reuniting, they are really like these places of connections on route to islands. I think that's an experience like, you don't get that in airports, right, where people are [...] for the most part, you're sort of sitting in your own bubble, especially these days, not trying to breathe or look at anyone else.  I feel like, I've always found that those travels to and from the islands are so memorable, people together; often playing instruments on the Shetland ferry - it's notorious for big old parties, and big jam sessions and people singing songs, sharing songs. So that's, I guess, in terms of memorable things, it's not a project, but I just I find that really fascinating. 

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Travel companions providing entertainment on board the MV Leif Ericson, Cabot Strait, North Atlantic Ocean.

Photo by Meghan Forsyth, 2021.

That’s a great reflection. I just also wanted to ask quickly, you still play fiddle or violin, like in a group or in performances, even now?

 

I'm, maybe, a recovering classical violinist. I grew up playing as a Suzuki student, Suzuki violin… very classical (music) world. And, at the same time, my family was heavily involved in Scottish country dancing. So, from an early age, you know, we listened to a lot of Scottish music. I started playing those tunes and I've always kind of done them simultaneously. But after I did an undergraduate degree in violin performance and realized pretty quickly that performance was not for me. I've always enjoyed playing in quartets or orchestras or fiddling with, in a jam session with people. [...] I've always found I love the kind of interactions that you have with other musicians in those informal settings of like a jam session in a pub or at home. That's really where my attention has taken me in terms of my own music. I play here in Newfoundland, I don't play in any groups. My two children have started playing fiddle and cello or violin and cello, and they both learned a few little fiddle tunes. So we played together, and I like to get my violin out, but my heart I think, for playing music with other people is really on PEI with my Acadian friends and that repertoire, that's really, if I could pick my happy place, that would be it. So that's sort of my musical life right now is with my kids here at home. Generally, I live in such a musical place and there's music on the corners downtown in St. John's. There's music everywhere in this place, so there's no shortage of music, but I wouldn't consider myself a Newfoundland fiddler by any means.

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Exploring, Tors Cove, Newfoundland and Labrador (Canada).

Photo by Wilco van Eikeren, 2020.

Yes it's true, because Newfoundland, or the East Coast, in general is known to be very musical, that people play their fiddle or their instruments. And so you found a really nice home among musicians.

 

It's true. It's a super musical place. [...] it's like, everywhere…every family has, like a musician, or more, right? [...] it's a place where even if people don't talk about it much… someone will pull out a guitar and play something. [...] it's a very interesting and very diverse right there. There's a strong Irish tradition here, but also many others, like the English influence. It depends on what part of the island you go to. But there's no shortage of good tunes and songs here.

 

Oh, it all sounds really, really fantastic. I have one last question. It might be a broader question for some reflections, but I love to hear from you just some concluding thoughts about the future of island studies?

 

I think [...] it's an exciting future. I think there's a lot of connections to be made with other areas. And I think especially before for me, connecting other colleagues that I know, who are working on islands who maybe are not as connected into groups, like SICRI, [...] there's a lot of potential for more collaborations, more sort of interdisciplinary connections to be made. I do think it's a very exciting future for island studies and I feel like I'm just - in my own research and my own connections -  at the tip of the iceberg, as it were. I'm really looking forward to being more part of it as well.

 

Thank you so much, Meghan, for this interview. It was so interesting hearing you talk and all your enthusiasm about your research and your work on islands and all the great things that you've done. I'm happy I have the chance to be the one to interview with you. So I want to say again, thank you, and good luck with your future research.

 

Thank you so much. It was a pleasure.