From the North: Tour brings some vibrant culture to the capital

Grey Gritt and Tiffany Ayalik are Quantum Tangle, a JUNO winning duo from Yellowknife. Photo: Kayley Mackay

Grey Gritt is one half of the JUNO Award winning dup Quantum Tangle with Tiffany Ayalik. The duo is part of a concert on Nov. 4 featuring musicians, artists, storytellers, dancers and Dene and Inuit athletes from Northern Canada. The show is called From The North. In advance Gritt told ARTSFILE about what it means to be an artist from the North.

Q. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?

A. I moved to Sudbury in 2005 and began performing as an opener for punk shows downtown, and began performing at Books and Beans on Durham Street. I lived there for a year and left for a year of school in Montréal to complete a diploma in Live Sound and Music Recording. I returned to Sudbury with this drive to record my own full length album — which I did with the help of a grant from the Métis Nation of Ontario. I spent the better part of a year recording it between performing and working, and once it was released, I hit the road.

The plan was to find a new place to live, and through a series of stories and events, I ended up in Yellowknife. I met my future bandmates and friends right away, played a show in the first 48 hours, got featured in the paper later that week and spent a month camping and couch-surfing before finding a place to live.

I spent a few years performing with a band called The Break Up and spent some time reassembling that band to support my own tunes when performing in the Northwest Territories. In 2013, the course of my music career changed when I was accepted into (Yellowknife’s) Northern Arts and Cultural Centre mentorship program. From early 2013 to early 2017, I was a part of that incredible career developing program that I believe is the reason I have any kind of success today. I met Tiffany then and we were able to forge Quantum Tangle into what it is today. I am so grateful to Marie Coderre and Treena Riles at NACC for the countless hours they put in to help us succeed.

Q. Tell me a bit about Quantum Tangle? What is the duet’s musical focus?

A. Quantum Tangle‘s musical focus is to weave together personal stories and traditional stories through song, spoken word, dance and humour. We want to talk about identity politics, about our personal journeys, about our experiences as indigenous people, as people under the LGBTQ2S+ umbrella, as people with blended backgrounds. We want to share our thoughts about colonialism. We want to share what we learn from our cultures. And we do it all in the hopes that we can create a connection with listeners — so that they know that they aren’t alone, or so that they become informed and can become better allies.

Q. You are blending two forms of music; one very much of the north in Tiffany’s throat singing and one that is more “southern” in your blues influenced style. Was this an easy blend? Explain.

A. It felt easy — and still does. We also started with a looping pedal, which is a playful process that helps us build huge soundscapes for stories and songs. We’ve added another looper to the mix, and we keep adding more elements of electronica as we go. I think we’ll always be rooted in a folk, blues and traditional sound, and on that foundation we can mix in new sounds and ideas. It’s an exciting time for us.

Q. Indigenous artists are succeeding these days winning awards and gaining public recognition? Obviously this is a good thing. But is it getting easier to be an Indigenous artist in Canada. If not why not?

A. This year was a controversial one in our collective histories. It seems that the Canada 150 celebrations have seen more Indigenous people performing and criticizing the sesquicentennial anniversary. We hope that Canada has seen how their stages, arts centres, festivals, art galleries, newspapers, movies, magazines, videos, fashion runways and music playlists have been lacking Indigenous peoples and perspectives this whole time. We hope that as 2018 begins, it will become impossible to fill those spaces with anyone or anything else — that we will only build from there. Otherwise Canada 150 will have been what it desperately didn’t want to become: a year of tokenization.

I think shows like From the North are doing a great job of respectfully bridging Indigenous and non-Indigenous performers, criticisms with celebration, stories of hardship with those of resiliency. Out of the difficult, our artists make things of substance and beauty. I don’t think anyone can stand taking any steps backward.

We are grateful for folks like A Tribe Called Red, Tanya Tagaq, Leela Gilday, Buffy Sainte-Marie, for being incredible artists and creating a path for all of us. It’s about time that they were recognized for being exceptional — and think about it — how many more were cast aside because of their genealogy? Because of where they were born, and who they were born to? I’m sure it is easier for some of us — but if it isn’t for all of us, well, how can we settle for that?

Q. You are open about your identity. I have read that you’d like to get past that discussion and focus on being known as an artist first?

A. I think it’s important to be open about who you are — when, and if, it is safe to do so. Sometimes I feel as though people only become interested in one small slice of who you are. They focus on Queer, or on Indigenous, or Transgender, or Francophone, or this or that.

Sometimes, it feels good to talk about that slice. It’s important to subvert the norm and show people that we exist, and be a lighthouse for other people like us to find each other. That’s powerful. That’s a part of creating an easier path for those who have yet to come.

I think about identity a lot. And I talk about it. I have a spoken word piece about it that I share in From the North. And it basically sums up to this: We aren’t fractions — we are whole people. We aren’t just a half of something, a 1/16th of something else … we are full human beings who happen to be artists, and I happen to be queer, and just happen to be transgender, and so many other things. So I will always continue the discussion, that is something I am deeply passionate about. But please understand that I’ve had full interviews about music turn into a piece about my journey with my gender. It’s important, but when you agree to have an interview about your music career and barely talk about it, or when a stranger wants to talk about transitioning on the radio and dead names you while he is at it, and you haven’t consented to any of it. In those moments I’d like to get past it.

It’s about consent. Ask first and accept that a person might not want to talk about it. Our society still has a lot to learn when it comes to consent.

Q. The JUNO win this past spring was one of those “moments.” Has the thrill worn off? 

A. The thrill definitely has not worn off! We still experience moments of disbelief. We’ll ask each other: ‘Did that really happen?’ I’ll remember that moment forever. Winning a JUNO has helped us feel confident in our music and in our message. It has solidified that our work is important, and that we should continue putting out records and connecting with people as much as we can.

Q. Do you think it’s important for there to be a JUNO category for best Indigenous Album?

A. I think so. To make reparations for the discrimination that Indigenous peoples have faced across Turtle Island, it’s important that there be a space for us in award ceremonies. Otherwise, we will continue to be overlooked. A Tribe called Red was the first group to win outside the category — and that was just in 2014.

That said, I think it’s also strange that you have so many mixed genres in that category that are all being compared and judged against each other, and it just doesn’t work that way. So I am excited for the day when we don’t need a separate category — when there is more equity in the ways we support indigenous artists. Until then, I see the importance of having the category to showcase folks who would otherwise be overlooked.

Q. Are you working hard touring or working hard on new music?

A. We released a new record, Shelter as we go…, on July 7, and we are already looking forward to our next record. We’ve been touring all summer, and we are on this incredible pan-territorial tour right now to promote it and to promote and celebrate Northern artists, athletes, musicians and dancers. From the North has been to Whitehorse, Yellowknife and we’re currently in Iqaluit. We’ll be going to Ottawa next, then Montreal, and finishing off in Vancouver!

Q. What is life like in the North?

A. I think Yellowknifers can be self-sufficient and supportive. The Indigenous peoples who were here before us, and here now with us, are incredibly resourceful. I think that rubs off on the folks who end up here. We have extreme seasons — darkness and deep freeze to midnight sun and dry desert climate. Within it, we rally together to brave the cold together, and celebrate the sunny summers together too. We have to have community to survive the hardships that come with being here.

We all know each other, and it makes it easy to run into the change-makers in government, and in positions of power. We can call our MLAs — or see them on our way to work, or in the grocery store. I’ve had coffee with a minister about health care in the NWT. I don’t think this is common in other provinces.

Q. The Nov. 4 show in Ottawa aims to introduce northern artists to the southern part of the country. Why does this matter?

A. This matters because many southerners know nothing about the North. I think this is a great way to break down some of the stereotypes we have about the North, and to educate Southerners about Northern issues. And when you have southern entities that are making decisions and choices that affect the North — you can see how that can be problematic. I haven’t seen or heard of a tour like this — it’s one of a kind. I also think it’s important to showcase our talented folks whenever possible. The cost of being an artist in the North is high.

Q. Would you ever leave the North?

A. I’ve spent more than eight amazing years in the North. I don’t think I could ever permanently leave. I’ve tried and failed twice already and I am thankful that I failed.

From the North
Where: La Nouvelle Scene Gilles Desjardin, 333 King Edward Ave.
When: Nov. 4 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information: or at the door.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.