NKVU project aims to join hands, hearts and minds through music, co-founder Jackie Hawley says

The NKVU concert was performed in Iqaluit in May.

On July 2, Dominion Chalmers United Church will host a special concert of choral music that connects north to south in Canada. The concert is part of an educational engagement project called Nipiit-Katittut — Voices United (NKVU) that was founded in 2015 by Ottawa’s Jackie Hawley, music educator and the artistic director of Ottawa’s Cantiamo Girls Choir and Dr. Mary Piercey-Lewis with the Inuksuk Drum Dancers of Iqaluit. Hawley explained the concert and the roots of NKVU in an emailed interview with ARTSFILE’s Peter Robb.

Q. Tell me about this interesting project?

A. NKVU is an educational exchange initiative for young musicians from diverse cultures/locations. Our goal is to create  artistic, cultural and personal connections through shared experience in music, to develop leadership and artistic skills, and to build community and bonds of lasting friendship through a mutual love of music. NKVU 2017, connects youth in Iqaluit and Ottawa through musical engagement in an educational exchange to build community, enhance cultural awareness and to foster musical artistry in performance. NKVU seeks to link choristers from diverse communities through music, to enhance awareness of, and appreciation for the richness of the diverse cultures in Canada.

Q. Is the July 2 concert the culmination of a tour?

A. No. It is the main concert of the tour which will feature the Ottawa premier of Qaujimavunga Kinaummangaarma — I Know Who I Am written by Inuk singer/songwriter Looee Nowdlak Arreak (listen to one of her songs here) and arranged by Ottawa composer (and my daughter) Laura Hawley for the Cantiamo Girls Choir of Ottawa (CGC), the Inuksuk Drum Dancers of Iqaluit (IDD) and the Juno award winning Gryphon Trio.

The Ottawa part of the tour starts on June 28 with participation in the national Unisong choral festival at the National Arts Centre. The Canada 150 Unisong festival will have more than 600 choristers from across Canada including CGC and IDD. The NKVU tour finishes on July 5 and will encompass a number of cultural engagement and performance activities.

Jackie and Laura Hawley.

Q. Where did this idea start? And why?

A. I have always sung (we almost all naturally do this until someone snuffs out our voice somewhere between Grades 2 and 4) and since I was 11 I knew I would teach music. I am incensed by the lack of music education in our schools and I am determined that every Canadian child will sing in school every day. That’s where this started.

The inspiration for NKVU came to me in 2003 when I was at Festival 500 in Newfoundland and heard/saw a choir from Arviat in Nunavut. I was very impressed by the way the group exhibited personal strength, cultural pride and a love of singing together. I made the assumption based on my limited knowledge of the North, that it must have been quite a challenge to put everything in place (rehearsals, funding, etc.) to participate in the international choral festival (this is a challenge everywhere) and I wanted to know more about these people and their community. In the ‘South’ we have a very limited knowledge of our fellow Canadians in the North. Canada has always seemed to me to be very connected from east to west (hence the term sea-to-sea) but it also seemed to me that we were forgetting the other sea. (I am very glad that the phrase ‘sea-to-sea-to-sea’ is becoming more commonplace.) I wanted to promote music education at the same time as foster a connection and facilitate learning and sharing between students in the North and South. I believe that if we are to have a chance of understanding of one another it is best done through youth. Their idealism, openness and lack of “hidden agenda” allow for the possibility of having a sincere, non-judgmental exchange of thoughts and ideas. The quickest way to make a deep connection between humans is through the arts, music in particular — especially singing.

Q. Tell me about the Inuit artists taking part.

A. Here is their bio: The Inuksuk Drum Dancers, under the direction of Dr. Mary Piercey, perform traditional Inuit music, including throat singing and drum dancing, and contemporary Inuit songs from all around Nunavut. At times, the group veers away from tradition to create innovative musical renditions , representing Inuit culture from rural Nunavut within the Inuit-Anglo-Franco urban context of Iqaluit. It is hoped, that in the struggle for recognition of their distinct culture, they will reinforce Inuit traditions and values and advocate the use of Inuktitut. The group has performed at a variety of events across Canada, including the Arctic Winter Games, the Puvirnituq Snow Festival, the Canada Summer Games in Prince Edward Island, and at the opening ceremonies of Toonik Tyme and the Alianait Arts Festival.

Q. How evolved is music-making in the North?

A. There is some reference to this in the above bio. There has also been a choral festival in the schools in Iqaluit for the past 10 years with guest clinician Dr. Lori-Anne Dolloff from University of Toronto. Because there was little music education happening in the schools in Iqaluit, Dr. Dolloff went up each year to teach (and learn) for a week making visits to all the schools and at the end there was a choral festival with more than 300 students. They would sing some European music and some traditional Inuit music and also do throat singing and drum dancing. As with human beings anywhere in the world, there is an innate love of beauty. As with all of our education programs, we should be offering students the opportunity to experience beauty through Art from all cultures and all parts of our country and the world. Art is an expression of human emotion and that is common all over the world.

Q. How did Laura Hawley get involved? What did she do on this project?

A. Laura has been with the Cantiamo Girls Choir since its inception. In the last few years, she has been our composer-in-residence. I wanted a commissioned work for NKVU 2017 and wanted it to be a collaboration between North and South. Laura has an excellent understanding of artistic pedagogy and is able to create music with artistic integrity whether she is composing for a professional choir or a group of inexperienced school students. She also has experience working with a variety of cultures and she is able to communicate openly with curiosity and honesty to try to understand the essence of the message intended in the composition and enhance it through her arrangement.

Laura and I traveled to Iqaluit to meet with Looee Arreak. I wanted the piece to have the theme of “identity” as that is some that all humans world over struggle to understand — especially youth. I also wanted Laura to experience “the land” as the feeling one has when looking out over the tundra cannot be put into words and I wanted this feeling to influence her composing. She and Looee communicated some more over the internet and after Looee finished writing her song she entrusted it to Laura to arrange for choir and piano trio. Laura was inspired by the beautiful melody and words of Looee’s song and Looee was moved to tears when she first heard the choirs and trio rehearse her newly arranged song. It is a stunning, emotional, powerful piece and the community in Iqaluit was enthralled when they experienced it. The Ottawa premiere will be July 2 right near the beginning of the concert. The piece is in Inuktitut and will be published soon (and) available to choirs all over the world. Looee was most thrilled that choristers from the south were singing in Inuktitut and sharing this with others. Laura and I and NKVU are very grateful to the NAC for funding our flights to and from Iqaluit to support this commission and the language of Inuktitut.

Q. How did the Gryphon Trio become involved?

A. I have known the Gryphon Trio since they first started more than 20 years ago. They used to come to the Kincardine Summer Music Festival on Lake Huron where I used to teach. Their music has always been breathtaking, passionate, vibrant, and diverse and they are generous, warm, honest, humble people.  I wanted to share them with the community in Iqaluit. I knew they were stellar educators as well and wanted to include them in our educational engagement in Iqaluit. I also had hoped that they might be able to be a part of the commissioned piece and knew the beauty of their playing would only make the new piece even more extraordinary. I was thrilled when they were available and enthusiastically willing to be a part of NKVU in Iqaluit and Ottawa. The Gryphon Trio have their educational program called Listen Up! and I have been involved with this project in the past as well as this year’s event in May 2017. The Cantiamo Girls Choir is a support choir for the school involved in Listen Up! It is a significant part of the mandate of Cantiamo to support music education in schools and we have facilitated workshops for teachers for more than 10 years now. One of the teachers in Iqaluit came to Ottawa for that workshop last year. We wanted to connect NKVU with Listen Up! through the theme of “identity”. We will perform one of the Listen Up! compositions — Canada Is by Ottawa composer James Wright — on July 2.

Q. What’s your role?

A. I am the artistic director of NKVU. I am the visionary behind the idea and of the way the educational and artistic components of the initiative are developed and executed. I am also the conductor of the Cantiamo Choirs of Ottawa and a music educator. Aside from training the choristers to be fine musicians, I train the girls in Cantiamo to facilitate workshops for less experienced people be they young school students, or teachers learning about choral music and conducting. I am also the main spokesperson for NKVU and for all of my life have been and will always be a passionate advocate for music education for all!

Q. Why do collaborations such as this matter?

A. These kinds of collaborations are a catalyst. It is important when participating in educational engagement that it is not a “one shot deal” or “showing off”. It is very easy to go places, have fun, do concerts and then go home. There is value in that but that is not enough. It is much more important to make a deep connection that is long lasting and, for each group, has ideas and elements that grow and feed new ideas, events and people. A successful engagement is infinite. It allows for all involved (and I mean ALL, not just the students!!) to open themselves to others, to themselves, to new ideas, to curiosity and acceptance. It allows for “uninformed” questions to be asked safely and honestly and answers to be given with clarity and generosity without judgement or misinterpretation. It allows for sharing laughter, joy, sadness, frustration, confusion, pride — all manner of human emotions — in an environment that is healthy and loving. It is about being fully human with one another.

NKVU in concert
Where: Dominion Chalmers United Church
When: July 2 at 7 p.m.
Tickets: Free will offering

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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.