By Victoria King
It’s not only one of the most anticipated shows planned for this year’s Winnipeg Folk Festival, but potentially one of the most unique and historic shows to be hosted in Winnipeg in recent years.
Supported by APTN, Native North America: A Selection of Musical Trailblazers is set to hit the Bur Oak stage on Saturday July 9 at 2 pm. The performance will bring together five of the artists featured on one of the most well-received albums of 2014, Native North America (Vol. 1): Aboriginal Folk, Rock, and Country 1966-1985. The album was released in November of 2014 via Seattle-based record label Light in the Attic Records. It featured the music of 23 different musicians and bands, all identifying as Indigenous, from various parts of North America with material released between 1966 and 1985. It was also music that was largely ignored, underfunded, and overlooked by the larger public eye at that point in history.
The album was compiled and curated by Kevin ‘Sipreano’ Howes, a Canadian DJ and music archivist who spent the last 15 years actively searching out the music for the compilation. “The goal of the whole project is to bridge generations, cultures, and eras of technology,” Howes explains. “One of the reasons why I did this compilation is to raise awareness about what these artists are doing today, in the present.”
In the context of the national folk fest circuit, this upcoming show at the Folk Fest will be unique to Winnipeg folkies; this summer, it’ll be one of if not the only, stage to bring these musicians back together. While there have been other NNAV1 hosted shows across the country (Vancouver, Toronto, Yellowknife) since the project’s release, the upcoming show at the Winnipeg Folk Festival will be the first time that a NNA show has had over two artists on the compilation appearing together on stage.
The album was nominated for the Best Historical Album at the 58th Annual Grammy Awards. Despite this, Howes says he still had trouble booking the compilation as a live show. “I really appreciate Chris Frayer’s belief in the project,” Howes cites. “I had pitched it to other festivals and the Winnipeg Folk Festival was the only one that saw it as something viable and interesting, and something that should be on stage.”
Chris Frayer, artistic director for the Winnipeg Folk Festival, says that he was a big fan of the NNAV1 box set, and was excited about the prospect of bringing the recordings to life on a Folk Fest stage. Frayer says that despite the age of the recordings, the music by these artists is, as he describes, “part of a creative continuum of music by Aboriginal peoples in Canada. This music is still very much alive and contemporary.”
Frayer explains that there’s been a lot of effort to bring in the artists off this compilation, “some from remote regions of the country.” “They’re not so young anymore – some of these musicians are in their 70s and can’t travel the same way someone a bit younger could.”
“It’s an extension of what many of the artists, but not all of them, were doing together in the 1970s and 80s as part of the folk fest circuit at different venues across the country,” Howes elaborates.
Duke Redbird is one of those artists. He is credited on the compilation for his poetry on the track “Silver River,” alongside his friend and long-time musical partner, Shingoose. Now 77 years old, Redbird still writes, primarily spoken word and hip hop, and performs under the MC name M.T. Pockets (“I’m probably the oldest rap artist in Toronto,” he says).
“Silver River” first appeared on Native Country, a 7” EP, recorded in 1975. At the time, the album was only sold at live gigs and at surrounding record stores, but was never widely distributed or heard on radio. Because of this, Redbird says it was a project he thought was “lost to the deep distant past.”
“It never got much airplay or distribution at the time we were doing it . . . we gathered up a little bit of money, we produced it ourselves,” he tells. “In order to have your work heard, you had to depend on broadcast radio stations. In that day, 1975, radio stations didn’t play First Nations music, or First Nations performers. You couldn’t get on the air. For example, my good friend Buffy Sainte-Marie was banned from any broadcast in the United States. The only time anyone would hear this music was when we were playing live in some venue, and there weren’t a lot of venues to play in either. It wasn’t that they weren’t good songs or good music, there was just no way to have an opportunity to broadcast or perform the music to large audiences.”
Redbird will appear with Shingoose at the upcoming performance at the Winnipeg Folk Festival. On the performance, Redbird remarks, “It’s an amazing gift to be recognized by a whole new generation of people who love music. It’s delightful and heartening.” However, for his generation of artists and friends who are aging, Redbird says that the stage can also be bittersweet. “It’s great, but there’s a certain sadness for the people that won’t be there, those that have already gone off to their reward, like Willie Dunn and Floyd Westerman. Really great artists that never had any following outside a very limited audience. The other side of it is that for those of us that are still around and still capable of getting up on a microphone, it’s quite exciting.”
Also on the bill is Eric Landry. Landry’s song “Out of the Blue” was released in 1985 and is currently the only commercially-released track by the artist, although he has been actively performing live onstage since then. He’s been working on his debut album ever since.
Landry says that not only was he surprised when Howes contacted him about being involved with Native North America, but he even had to ask Howes to send him a copy of the song because he’d forgotten how to play it. “I didn’t even have a recording of it,” he explains. “I asked him to send it to me so I could relearn it.”
Talking about his musical journey, Landry says he has been led and instructed by Spirit. He received a music vision of the buffalo in his youth and was instructed by Spirit not to play the music until the people need it, not when they want it. And in the meantime, he was instructed to go learn about the buffalo (meaning culture). Landry explains that he was never able to identify the want time until society had passed through it in the 70s and 80s. He wasn’t told when the need time was going to be, but then Native North America came along. “When this call came in from Kevin, I thought ok, something is starting to happen here,“ Landry explains. “So now we’ve stepped into the need time.”
On the upcoming performance Landry says that it feels very welcoming. “I really want to be there and I’m excited to showcase the compilation. And to meet up with some of these musicians. I haven’t seen Willie Thrasher in 30 years. These musicians who are on the compilation, I’ve been thinking about them for the last ten years, wondering what did they do, and where are they now.”
One of the artists that Landry will meet-up with for this show is Willie Mitchell. Mitchell has opened for Buffy Sainte-Marie, and has been a judge for the Juno Awards. Currently, he lives in Mistissini, Quebec with his wife. He continues to write and perform music, saying that in particular he likes playing for kids. “I tell a legend when I perform for kids, legends and stories,” he says. “Stories about the drum, or giant mosquitoes. Different stories. But they say you’re only supposed to tell stories in the winter, so I guess I won’t tell any stories in Winnipeg.”
Mitchell’s album Ceremonies was recorded in his home reserve of Kitigan Zibi. He also released an eight-song cassette in 1993. His tracks on NNAV1, “Call of the Moose,” as well as “Kill’n your Mind” and “Birchbark Letter” (the latter two also crediting his band) were some of Mitchell’s earliest commercially released music.
Mitchell credits the beginning of his musical career to an early episode in his youth; while in the neighbouring town, Maniwaki, to his home, Mitchell was asked by another boy to hold two lightbulbs. Mitchell didn’t know it but the light bulbs had been stolen. A police officer started coming towards Mitchell, so with great fear, Mitchell took off running. The policeman shot him and hit him through the back of his head. He survived the shot, and started writing music while recovering in the hospital. After the court trail, Mitchell and his mother were given a settlement of three thousand dollars. Much of the money went to repay the costs of their lawyer, as well as his mother’s travel costs. Mitchell only asked for a small portion of it to buy a guitar, which he still plays today.
He was contacted after Howes stumbled across a copy of his album Sweet Grass Music. The record was recorded in 1980 and featured the music of Willie Thrasher, Roger House, as well as Mitchell’s own music with the Desert Band. When asked if he was surprised when Kevin contacted him about the project, Mitchell says he was very surprised. He laughs, “I thought he was some kind of hacker up to no good. But as we spoke I knew deep in my heart that this was a special guy. He’s got the biggest heart, Kevin. I’m very grateful to him.”
Mitchell recalls that it was emotional to hear the song again. “Light in the Attic buffed it up and it sounds even better than before. It brought a lump to my throat to hear that again, because all the albums were sold out. There was only 1500 albums, and most went to Japan,” Mitchell recalls.
Mitchell shares that he’s excited for the Folk Festival. “Excited and nervous, I guess like anybody. I won’t be nervous when I go up onstage, but I’m nervous up to that point,” he says. “It pleases me to please people with my music, that’s the most important thing. Seeing people’s faces, seeing that they like it.”
Over a crackling telephone line from his apartment in Toronto, Duke Redbird quotes Willie Nelson when he reminds me that “Three chords and the truth. That’s what a country song is.” The music and the stories of the NNA performers at this year’s Winnipeg Folk Festival are powerful, and an important piece of musical history. As Redbird recalls, “we were a world of young artists with dreams and idealism and a world that just appeared for a very short time, and then disappeared into a swamp of electronics and new music and punk rock, and all the other things that came afterwards. It was a Camelot of music. It was a time, a moment in time. Those of us that lived through it will never forget it. I’m glad I was part of that era.”
This is surely a performance you do not want to miss.
Native North America: A Selection of Trailblazers will happen on Saturday, July 9 at 2 pm on the Bur Oak stage at the 2016 Winnipeg Folk Festival. For more information about Native North America, go online to lightintheattic.net.