Hey there, time traveller! This article was published 13/5/2016 (1349 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
In January, Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman declared 2016 the year of reconciliation. The Winnipeg Folk Festival has taken his idea and run with it.
On July 9 (the Saturday of the annual festival), organizers have planned a "Native North America" workshop, inspired by the Grammy Award-nominated compilation Native North America (Vol. 1): Aboriginal Folk, Rock and Country 1966-1985.
The album features tracks previously lost in time, created by aboriginal artists from across North America, painstakingly sought out and compiled by music journalist-historian Kevin Howes over the span of two decades.
"There’s an obvious importance to our immediate community," Chris Frayer, the folk fest’s artistic director, says of the workshop and album. "It’s a bit of outreach, it’s a bit artistic, it’s a bit anthropologic, it’s a bit audio nerd."
The 34-song, double-disc box set unearths a previously untapped vein of folk-music history, focusing on aboriginal artists who, in many cases, didn’t have the opportunity to share their work outside of their home communities. In true folk fashion, the songs address topics from the political to the spiritual to the environmental, and are doused in acoustic guitar and fuzzy bass lines.
"Music by indigenous artists in those days did not get airplay, so we were the garage bands of that era," says poet and activist Duke Redbird, 77, one of the 23 artists and groups on the compilation.
"We had to get our own studio time together and pay for it... We were young, had all the enthusiasm and passion that young people have; we didn’t see it as a problem. Nobody was going to sign us to a record deal, so we made our own records."
The songs continue to have relevance even though they were recorded decades ago, Howes says.
"The music that these artists recorded was a reflection of the times, and it seems a lot of the problems the communities were facing in the ’60s and ’70s are still with us, unfortunately," says Howes. "There are songs about the destruction of the environment and politics and the history of colonialism and residential schools. These issues are still front-page news today in 2016, which is a shame, but through dialogue and connection and learning and sharing, hopefully these things can be improved upon — and music is such a great connector; it brings people together."
The journey to the completion of Native North America (Vol. 1) was a labour of love for Howes, who travelled across Canada in search of obscure music at flea markets, garage sales and second-hand record stores. The music he discovered affected him deeply, so it became his mission to discover anything he could about it.
"Even as a non-native person, they spoke to me, and I wanted to learn more about these artists — who they were and their histories — so I started reaching out to them," says Howes. "When you call a musician and ask, ‘Hey, do you remember that record you made in 1966?’ They’re like, ‘Who are you? How did you get that?’ But I came with love and respect for the music, and a passion and a history of working in music as well, so it’s a great opportunity to connect with other music-minded people."
Once the compilation was released, praise started to roll in from all corners of the globe, the pinnacle being a Grammy nomination earlier this year in the best historical album category.
"It’s been really nice to see the reaction from fans old and new... a lot of young people have been interested, people from all different backgrounds. The events that I’ve been hosting and helped organize thus far have brought together a really wide range of people, which is something that I’d like to see more of. It’s encouraging," says Howes. "Things will improve in life if we get together and learn from each other and share things. I want this to be a really positive experience."
The musicians at the folk fest workshop will represent the largest gathering of contributors to the album thus far. The performance (which will be on the Bur Oak stage) will feature Redbird, Willie Thrasher, Willy Mitchell, Eric Landry, and Shingoose. Winnipeg singer-songwriter William Prince will also take part, to offer a contemporary spin on some of the decades-old tunes.
"It really is about a combination of it being a really appropriate singer-songwriter workshop for the festival — it fits in with the type of programming we do — and acknowledging the reconciliation part of it," Frayer says. "People are looking for this kind of programming at the festival, so whenever we can have it, and have it be this meaty, it’s great."
The artists, too, are excited to be involved, even if some were a bit skeptical when Howes initially approached them.
The Northwest Territories-born Thrasher, who now lives in Nanaimo, B.C., says he slammed the phone down when Howes first came calling because he couldn’t believe what the journalist was talking about. Redbird, who was born on Saugeen First Nation in Ontario and lives in Toronto, was just in shock anyone was interested in the work he had created so many years ago.
"He kept calling back... and then he came to Vancouver Island and we did a three-day interview," says Thrasher, who has three tracks on the compilation. "After that, everything became history."
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"I thought it was great that he had found it, and I appreciated the fact that he thought it had some significant value in the development and history of aboriginal music," adds Redbird, who has released two CDs of spoken-word performance. "I can’t tell you how pleased I was; it was just fantastic."
Many of the compilation artists have taken a "better-late-than-never" approach to the attention they’ve received since the record was released. All they wanted from Day 1 was for people to hear their music and absorb their messages, and now, albeit years later, they have the chance to make that happen.
Thrasher has been taking full advantage of his new-found prestige, making tour stops at festivals all over the country; he’s even started working on a new record.
"It’s just like the flower that didn’t finish growing at the time the album came out," Thrasher says of his 1981 record, Spirit Child, which was reissused in 2015. "It bloomed; it’s started spreading all over now."
Erin Lebar Multimedia producer
Erin Lebar is a multimedia producer who spends most of her time writing music- and culture-related stories for the Arts & Life section. She also co-hosts the Winnipeg Free Press's weekly pop-culture podcast, Bury the Lede.
Female aboriginal voices are notably absent from Native North America (Vol. 1) —something producer Kevin Howes says was just a “sign of the times” of the music he was focusing on when building this compilation.
“There weren’t many indigenous female artists recording folk-rock and country in the ’60s and ’70s,” says Howes. “It’s a sign of the times, unfortunately, but I’m quite happy to report that has changed significantly over the years.”
He adds there are recordings of women performing more traditional forms of music, such as throat-singing, but in the context of folk, it was a male-dominated scene.
“It would have been great, but the material didn’t exist,” he says. “And what did exist didn’t fit in with the rest of the material on the compilation.”