iskwē makes a musical journey to the stars

iskwē. Photo: Matt Barnes

The Cree word for the stars is acākosīk. It’s also the title of the Winnipeg-born iskwē’s latest album. She’s coming to Ottawa for a performance of the music on acākosīk, which has been nominated for a JUNO,  at the National Arts Centre on Feb 1.

“With this album I wanted to start bringing in Cree teachings and stories as I know them and as I am learning,” she told ARTSFILE in an interview.

“I wanted to start with this idea that we come from the Star People. We come from the sky world and are descendants of the Star People.”

The story is in the conversation that takes place in the songs on the album and it is also present in the use of symbolism and metaphor in the art work around the record and iskwē’s stage performance.

She is all about tying things together artistically.

“I come from the disciplines of visual art and dance it was a natural progression to bring more of them in as I was getting more comfortable with my musical voice. In my own creations, they all work hand in hand.”

Different shows will have different set ups but all these mediums are present in one form or another.

In many ways iskwē is a performance artist as well as a powerful musical presence.

The story of the Star People is a creation story.

“I was taught is that we are descendants of Sky Woman who was peeking down at Earth which was covered in water. She fell through this hole and landed on turtle’s back. Different animals came forward to try to help Sky Woman and she asked them to dive down and bring up sand and from that she would make the earth on turtle’s back.

“There is constant movement between the Sky World and the Walking World. When you look up into the sky and see shooting stars or twinkling stars you are seeing that movement of spirit between the realms.”

Learning these stories is part of iskwē’s exploration of her culture.

“We never stop learning. I have reached a point where I have realized what I actually know is that I don’t known anything. I can confidently say that.

“I am not a knowledge keeper. I am someone who can amplify these stories and the teaching and the experiences. These are things that I am learning as I go and I want to share as I am learning.”

Many Indigenous people are actively working to reclaim their language and culture.

“A good chunk of people don’t know their language any more or they know bits and pieces. I am one of those people. I am not fluent in Cree. I know bits and pieces. I am committed to continually learning more and more.

“As I am learning, I want to share with people to say I didn’t grow up speaking this language and we all know why, we understand why many Indigenous people can’t speak their languages.

“The thing is how are we ever going to relearn them if we don’t try. That comes with mistakes and mispronunciations and with using the wrong word to describe something. It’s all OK. It’s part of learning. It’s fun. It doesn’t have to be stressful.

“That is why I want to incorporate it into the art so that as I am learning and mispronouncing something I’m fine with that. There is no malice. I am doing my best.”

She grew up with her mom and her mom’s family which is Cree and Metis in Winnipeg.

So when she explores stories “I make sure to be respectful of these teachings as I move forward. I make sure that I follow the practices and protocols along the way.

“I am always walking with love in my heart for these stories and with what I do. I really try to be proactive is to follow lead of those who are helping me along the way.”

There are seven songs on acākosīk. It reminds one of a classical song cycle.

“This album is a piece of art. This was of a piece from start to finish. It had its arc, story and purpose. I had other tunes but they didn’t make sense to be part of this piece.

“People will say it’s very short and yes it is. It was not for me to try to extend it. To try to cram more in would lose the through line of the record.

Two of the songs on the record are The Unforgotten and Little Star. They are examples of how iskwē creates.

“These songs come from somewhere that is beyond me. I have no idea.

“I can sit down at the keyboard or with pen and paper. I can sit and stare and plink around and do my best and nothing will come. Or I can sit down and all of sudden I blink and there is a song.

“It’s not to say I’m not connected to the lyrical content that is coming through. These stories and songs come from a place beyond me. I feel I am a conduit for them, making their way from one realm to the next.

Sometimes that can be a response to a specific event.

“Little Star was a direct response to trials of Gerald Stanley and Raymond Cormier for the deaths of Tina Fontaine and Colton Boushie.

“With The Unforgotten, I just picked up my hand drum one day. I was sitting in my office that song literally just fell out. What I was feeling in that moment was pride and a sense of empowerment in the sound of the drum. That was what I wrote about. The lyrical content could sound like I’m speaking about something heavy but really the idea is about resilience.”

She also recalled the song Say It Sweet from an earlier record The Fight Within. She had written a poem that she had forgotten about.

“I was performing at an event in Scotland. A friend had been out on some of the coastal islands and he had been out collecting sounds. He got on stage and created some music with those sounds. As he was doing that I started singing the poem. It just popped into my head. We fleshed it out and polished it.”

Her music and her art are powerful things but is she seeking to change thinking and influence understanding?

“That’s in my mission statement as an artist but it’s not a direct thought in each piece that I create. When I’m working on an individual element, I’m not thinking about how I can make it be impactful.”

It’s fair to say that her career in music is on an upward track but typically Iskwe sees success in her own way.

“There is a feeling that you have to have a ‘big goal’ and if you reach that goal you are successful. But for me it’s more the minutiae that takes place in between that is the actual face of success. It’s the things along the way, that is where success is.”

Just as her lyrics depend on various inspirations, her music is also variable.

“The music depends on the piece it’s being developed for. I used to struggle with the idea of needing to fit within a genre, saying I am such and such a recording artist, that I make such and such music.

“That might work for some people. but it doesn’t make sense to me. I can’t create that way. I feel comfortable not having one genre, but it did take some time.”

iskwē with Vi
Where: Azrieli Studio, NAC
When: Feb. 1 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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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.