Raised voices

Online concert spotlights established female Indigenous singers and elevates new performers


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Writing what you know is well-trodden advice. For Rhonda Head, that means writing songs about Indigenous womanhood.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 05/03/2021 (827 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Writing what you know is well-trodden advice. For Rhonda Head, that means writing songs about Indigenous womanhood.

“When I write a song, it’s about an experience I went through or a shared experience that other women have shared with me,” says the classical mezzo-soprano over the phone from her home in Opaskwayak Cree Nation. “Music is a great way to share our stories because they’re not censored… nobody can tell us how to write and what to write about.”

Head will be in good company Monday night as one of 13 Indigenous female artists performing in a virtual concert called Iskwewak Nikamowak — which means “women singing” in the Swampy Cree dialect. The event is an International Women’s Day celebration presented by the Indigenous Music Development Program at Manitoba Music.

Mezzo-soprano Rhonda Head blends her love of classical performance with her Cree heritage.
Supplied Mezzo-soprano Rhonda Head blends her love of classical performance with her Cree heritage.

Head has submitted two songs for the pre-recorded program; Awaken from her 2017 album Kisahkihitan felt like an obvious choice. The song chronicles a spiritual journey she had with a young Indigenous woman who grew up outside her culture. The pair travelled to Ottawa together, stopping at reserves along the way to participate in feasts and ceremonies.

“It was her first time being exposed to the culture and I asked her if she got it, if she understood what was going on,” Head says. “She said yes, and I could tell she wasn’t lying, because I could see that sparkle in her eye.

“There is an awakening going on, especially with Indigenous people… we’re a matriarchal culture and we women are becoming more in the forefront again.”

Head has performed with choirs and orchestras around the world and has spent her career blending her love of classical music with her Cree language. She has been busier than ever during the pandemic, releasing a series of new singles and hosting an online talk show called Indigenous Superstars from her home in northern Manitoba.

She’s honoured and excited to be selected to take part in Iskwewak Nikamowak.

“It’s a great day to recognize women and all the hard work we’ve done,” she says. “All of these women that are going to be singing, they’re all powerhouses and I’m really honored to be sharing the stage with them.”

The virtual concert is the brainchild of Shaneen Robinson-Desjarlais, co-ordinator of the Indigenous Music Development Program. Beyond the musicians, the show’s production crew is made up entirely of Indigenous women.

“Indigenous women have always been resilient,” she says. “For generations, we’ve gone through a lot and our women have been silenced through many systems. I think this is a really great way to have our voices heard in a positive way.”

A talent show for up-and-coming artists will take place after the concert; five winners, selected by a jury of industry professionals, will receive Manitoba Music memberships and access to career consultation sessions.

There’s a large, established talent show circuit among First Nations in Manitoba, says Robinson-Desjarlais, with musicians travelling from community to community during the summer and winter to compete for cash prizes and exposure. She’s looking forward to bringing the format to a wider audience.

“A lot of the submissions that I received for the talent show are from northern communities, which I was so happy about,” Robinson-Desjarlais says. “These are women that otherwise are not going to be on the Winnipeg music scene, or the national music scene… and a lot of them are really talented singers.”

Visit facebook.com/MusicIndigenous on March 8 to tune into the Iskwewak Nikamowak concert at 6 p.m., followed by the talent show at 8 p.m.


Twitter: @evawasney

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Eva Wasney

Eva Wasney
Arts Reporter

Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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