“Music is the only universal language,
the only one that is understood and spoken
in each of the 195 countries on this planet.”
Few people on the other side of keechigamaak, “the big water” as the Eeyou call the Atlantic Ocean, are aware of the Indigenous musical effervescence in the Francophone environment in Kanata (Canada). Ten First Nations occupy the Kébeq (Quebec). They are the Innu, Eeyou, Atikamekw, Mi’qmakw, Waban A’kis, Wolastoqiyik, Anishnaabes/Algonquins, Naskapi, Kanien’ke: Akas and Wendats. In addition to the 700,000 First Nations, there are 13,000 Inuit from Nunavik in the North.
After contacts that led to territorial dispossession and a quasi-cultural genocide, this is an era of affirmation marked by political and institutional changes. Throughout gatherings in Indigenous territories and on urban stages, a dynamic artistic universe vibrates. Its roots, spread by talented Indigenous musicians, create planetary nomads, moving everywhere on the back of Yändiawish, the great turtle, Mother Earth.
Our musicians are Makusham makers. Their sound vibrations have a wild origin, associated with the one called (in Algonquin languages) Maku, the bear. Hibernating in the bowels of Mother Earth, this mythological animal keeps in it the memory of the land. It follows bees and butterflies to medicinal plants. Having transmitted to humans the dream of taking off to play, sing and dance, in other words, the impulse to nomadism and healing. Maku symbolizes the fusion of animist breath with the contemporary festive, unifying and beneficial musical rhythms. Moreover, the musical essence of our spoken/sung languages embodies an identity that links cultural movements to musical trends. For many Indigenous people, multilingualism was an asset long before the arrival of colonial languages. This linguistic versatility reinforces, with half of the indigenous population living in cities, the role of musicians as spokespersons for the revitalization of indigenous languages, recognized by UNESCO. Let us add their ease for multi-instrumentalist, multidisciplinary and international collaborations, a phenomenon linked to musical creativity in the vicinity of visual arts, theatre and documentaries.
Thirty years of community self-determination are coming to an end. In Kébeq, the Innu First Nation is the musical leader and shines throughout all 54 reserves. Malioténam, a community on the North Shore, is at the epicentre of this movement: it is the birthplace of the famous duo Kashtin (1989), home to the Innu Nikamu Festival (heading into its 36th annual edition since 1984) and Florent Vollant’s music production studio. In addition, the Atikamekw-Montagnais Communication Corporation’s network of community radio stations continuously broadcast Indigenous music on reserves. The “Pow Wow Trail” that extends to more than fifteen communities is part of this musical affirmation in Indigenous territories. In addition, the the excursions to the reserves of the Wapikoni Mobile video production project with its Nikamowin branch (Nomadic Music) is stimulating the emergence of the next generation. Finally, far from forgetting such pioneers as Alanis Obomsawin, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Philippe Mackenzie, Robbie Robertson and Kashtin (Florent Vollant and Claude Mackenzie), they are being celebrated with documentaries and awards.
These elements reflect a strong, networked, rapidly developing music in First Nations communities, connected to the urban Indigenous showcases of the Teweikan Galas and the Montreal First People’s Festival in Tiötià:ke/Montreal. This year, the Association québécoise de l’industrie du disque, du spectacle et de la vidéo (ADISQ) is opening one Indigenous category at its high-profile Gala. Invitations to the sākihiwē festival in Winnipeg and the International Indigenous Music Summit in New Orleans echo this international openness.
In 2019 the stars are aligned. An essential creative critical mass for Indigenous music is taking shape in America. And it is undoubtedly the steady beat and increased interest in the rhythms of the drums and traditional songs that are the first vibrations. They can be heard through the updating of traditional songs, folk, country and rock, blues, jazz and opera, rap, reggae, slam, world music, electro-pop to classical music.
The preponderance of drums reminds us of the inalienable place given to the Ancients by perpetuating traditional rhythms and songs as the Innu Charles-Api Bellefleur does with ardour. On urban stages, the social drums of musicians like Odaya and Moe Clark resonate. On the Pow Wow trail, groups like the Black Bears Singers (Atikamekw) metamorphose the large inter-tribal drums into “sacred thunder”.
Spoken word poetry ensures the transition between tradition and hypermodernity. This is the case with Katajjait throat singing contests by Inuit women including Tanya Tagaq and Elisapie Isaac. The bear’s steps and drum vibrations are electrified in folk, country and rock styles through the Innu (Florent Vollant - mentor of the younger generations and 2019 Teweikan Gala Award: Scott-Pien Picard, Matiu, Maten, Innutin) and Atikamekw (Sakay Ottawa, Laura Niquay, Yvan Boivin-Flemand), and Anachnid (Cree). There are several intertribal collaborations such as Nikamu Mamuitun - Chansons rassembleuses.
They became rap with the Algonquin Samian, Naskapi group Violent Ground, and the Miq’makw Q052, reggae with the singer Innu Shauit, slam with the Innu poet Natasha Kanapé Fontaine, blues and jazz with Wendat Andrée Kwe’dokye’s Levesque Sioui, Anishinabe Digging Roots, Inuit Quantum Tangle, Métis Kawandak and Miq’makw Raymond Sewell and Backtower Township/Corey Thomas. Through their use of turntables and synthesizers, DJs like Geronimo Inutik, Ziibiwan, and of course A Tribe Called Red are ready for the electronic world’s festivalgoers.
Furthermore, we can say that classical music is becoming more Indigenous! Just follow the furrows of Cree musician Tomson Highway signing the musical libretto Tshakapesh played in four communities by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and its conductor Kent Nagano. Or listen to the tenor voice of artist Jeremy Dutcher mixing piano, drum and recording traditional songs on the old beeswax rolls to sing the Wolastok (the Wolastoqiyik river) in his language. Singer Andrée Kwe’doky’es Levesque Sioui also drew inspiration from such recordings to create the piece Kwayaweh in Wendake with the Orchestre philarmonique de Québec.
In the end, against the environmental damage done to Mother Earth, Indigenous women artists are the warriors of this 21st century, and among them, the Inuit singer Élisapie Isaac, winner of the Best Show Award at the 2019 Teweikan Gala. Her latest composition Nous avons marché was sung by thousands of children at school on the very day of the world’s major climate marches. She also mentioned all these marches for justice for Indigenous women. This piece carries the vibrations of hope of a frozen revolution in northeastern America. It is the one of wilderness through music to renew our relationships. In other words, Indigenous musicians are ready to cross the oceans backwards to decolonize the scenes overseas.