MEGAPHONO: Gathering of Indigenous artists shines light on great music of the past

I pity the country / I pity the state / And the mind of a man / Who thrives on hate
— From I Pity the Country by Willie Dunn.

For people who celebrate to success of A Tribe Called Red and other Indigenous musicians who are making it big in 2018, a little nod to those who went before is welcome.

That’s the point of the Native North American Gathering being staged at the National Arts Centre on Friday at the invitation of the MEGAPHONO organizers.

For Kevin Howes, the gathering and the recording that spawned it has been a true labour of love.

Howes is a Vancouver-based DJ (aka Sipreano) and record producer. His album Native North America (Vol. 1) was nominated for a Grammy as best historical album in 2016. The record was produced by the American label Light in the Attic. And it featured the work of Indigenous performers from the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. On the disc are singer-songwriters such as the late Willie Dunn (who made his home in the Ottawa area), Willie Mitchell, Shingoose and Duke Redbird.

Howe was a Grade 10 student in Markham when he had his first encounter with Willie Dunn. His English teacher screened the short film The Ballad of Crowfoot. “That was an impactful moment,” Howe says. His eyes were opened and his curiosity was sparked.

Kevin Howes aka Sipreano.

But he was also interested in music and eventually a career as a DJ beckoned. Howes moved to Vancouver where he was constantly looking for new and interesting music to sample in his shows.

“Through a love of hip hop and sample-based culture,” he said, “I started DJing and collecting old vinyl records. There are a few mentors who pushed me in different directions. One was an old West Coast hippie who pointed me to a lot of music I had never heard of, music that didn’t make the charts.”

Howes started to really dig in, travelling across the country looking everywhere for records made by regional bands or local singer-songwriters. And over time he started to find old albums by Indigenous artists.

“The music touched my soul,” he said, “and I wanted to know more about it. I realized if I wanted to learn more I had to go to the artists. So I started tracking them down to thank them for their music and to ask for context.”

In the early 2000s, he started working with the U.S. label Light in the Attic Records. Over time he’s done about 30 records with the company including two albums on the music of Sixto Rodriguez (aka Sugar Man) before the famous documentary came out.

Over time, Howes has become very active in archival music work. It’s not a hobby, he says, “I view it as a calling. The idea is to bridge cultures and generations with technology. A lot of the people (on Native North America) are still playing, still active.”

Howes recognized that he could assist in getting them back on stages following the success of the CD.

“For me it’s a way to share music I feel passionate about. When I was younger I’d do it in a nightclub. I’d play these old records to the club.

“Willie Dunn (for example) is as good a singer-songwriter as any Canada has ever produced. He was born and raised in Montreal of Mi’kmaw. You can put I Pity The Country against any Gordon Lightfoot Leonard Cohen song. … He was left out of the dialogue.”

Indigenous peoples know these artists well, but the rest of us, Howes says, “are just playing catch-up.”

He wants to make sure Canadians catch up.

“We need to share and learn from each other. We need to hear each other.” The music is a catalyst for all that, he says.

“But I would be doing the artists a great disservice if this was just an album in a shop.”

There will be a volume two. It will feature artists from the U.S.

But, over time, he has also staged gatherings of these artists across the country from Cape Breton Island to Aklavik in the Northwest Territories to Vancouver. Ottawa is the latest.

“It was important for me to continue to work with the artists and so I started putting on events. We’re excited to do it here.”

Alanis Obomsawin in days gone by.

The Ottawa lineup includes Willie Thrasher, Linda Saddleback, Duke Redbird, Willie Mitchell, Leland Bell, Eric Landry and the singer and filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin. She will be singing her music.

At 85, Obomsawin is “such a gift to all of us.” She wasn’t part of the record, but Howes is glad she’s involved the Ottawa gathering because she was such a big part of what was going on in the 1960s. The Nishnaabeg storyteller Leanne Betasamosake Simpson will also be performing.

The show will include a tribute to Willie Dunn and The Ballad of Crowfoot, an NFB film Dunn directed in 1968, will be shown with Dunn’s family in attendance. Howes is also currently working on a Willie Dunn anthology that will be out later this year.

Native North American Gathering
Where: Babs Asper Theatre
When: Feb. 9 at 7:30 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.