NACO’s Canada 150 tour: Fêted in Eskasoni

The Denny Family Dancers entertain Tuesday evening in Eskasoni. Photo Peter Robb

ESKASONI FIRST NATION, Cape Breton Island • This evening of food and Mi’kmaw culture might just prove to be a hard act to follow.

The members of the NAC Orchestra were greeted by the people of the Eskasoni First Nation Tuesday with a generous seafood dinner and a warm evening of music and dance.

The night on the shores of Bras d’Or Lake, according to Christopher Deacon, was the first time NACO has ever been hosted this way.

The reason NACO has landed in Eskasoni, at 4,500 souls the largest Mi’kmaw community in Atlantic Canada, is because it is the home of the Mi’kmaw poet laureate Rita Joe, whose verse I Lost My Talk has been set to music in a commission that was made to commemorate the 75th birthday of former prime minister Joe Clark by his family.

The piece, with music written by John Estacio, is accompanied by a dance film by Barbara Willis Sweete featuring indigenous performers chosen by the Six Nations choreographer Tekaronhiáhkhwa Santee Smith. The words of Rita Joe’s poem are spoken by the actor Monique Mojica during the performance of the music.

One of the key parts of the NACO tour has been to reach out to indigenous artists and peoples across Atlantic Canada with a goal of delivering a message of reconciliation. In St. John’s, Moncton, Charlottetown and Saint John, there have been music education sessions and performances. It all has been pointed to the gathering in Eskasoni.

I Lost My Talk will be performed early Wednesday afternoon in the community’s Dan K. Stevens Memorial Arena. The audience will hear a program that also includes the fourth movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony and the third movement of Sibelius’s Concerto in D minor for Violin and Orchestra featuring violinist James Ehnes, who is accompanying the NACO tour.

The concert will close with a new song We Shall Remain (It Wasn’t Taken Away), by local high school student Kalolin Johnson, her father Tom Johnson, and teacher Carter Chiasson. Kaolin will sing with the orchestra.

But before all that happened the orchestra was welcomed by Chief Leroy Denny and his community. Tuesday evening’s festivities were held in the Sarah Denny Memorial Hall. Sarah Denny was the matriarch of a clan of traditional dancers and the Denny Family Dancers performed for the audience. That was followed by a rousing example of Mi’kmaw powwow music by the Stony Bear Singers accompanied by more traditional dancers. Another aspect of Mi’kmaw culture revolves around the fiddle and the audience was treated to performances by two, Shawnee Paul, who is already an accomplished player and studying music at Acadia University, and by Vincent Joe, who, the audience was told, has worked with some of the greats of Mi’kmaw fiddling. He didn’t disappoint.

There was a set of spiritual songs in the Mi’kmaw language by a local choir and other performances including a setting of another poem by Rita Joe.

The day at Eskasoni will feature instrumental workshops with students from the first nation and more than 250 students from five Cape Breton schools. The Cape Breton students will work with NACO musicians and Music Director Alexander Shelley.  At the same time Mi’kmaw artist Alan Syliboy and other local artists will explore the theme We Shall Remain with 250 local Eskasoni students. There will be musical performances by James Ehnes and Kalolin Johnson while Alan Syliboy paints to the music. Three large murals will be created.

Earlier outreach events with indigenous artists included one in St. John’s, Newfoundland, called Reconciliation Through the Arts. It brought together students from the Shallaway Youth Choir and the indigenous group Eastern Owl.

In Saint John, New Brunswick, a four-day summit with 10 emerging indigenous artists from the four Atlantic provinces including two from Labrador, was held.

And I Lost My Talk is not the only new commission with a message about reconciliation and understanding being performed on tour. In St. John’s, the Shallaway choir sang an NAC-commissioned work called Heirloom by Toronto-based composer Larysa Kuzmenko with a text by Robert Chafe, which acknowledged the dark history of that province’s indigenous peoples.

In all the NACO tour will have held more than 80 education and community events and work with  60 organizations, 50 artists and educators and 6,000 participants by the end on May 6 in Halifax.

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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.