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Thursday, December 18, 2014

2014 - The Year in Music

2013 was the year Idle No More smashed Canadian complacency like a huge rock landing in the middle of a calm lake. 2014 saw a Tidal Wave of Native Music washing from sea to sea to sea created in that wake up call.

Canada's Conscience Award - Neil Young took up the challenge to Canada and rock n roll's conscience brought the message home. Young kicked off the year with the Honor the Treaties Tour on Sunday, January 12 at historic Massey Hall in Toronto. Young raised awareness but also money for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation to hold back further Tar Sand developments on their territory. Dianne Krall joined in with Young for some of the tour dates although support from Canada's music and entertainment community was sadly lacking.

Worth the Wait Award - In March, the Juno's recognized George Leach with Aboriginal Album of the Year and it was well deserved. Leach's Surrender came 12 years after his much loved debut album "Young Enough". It showcased a musician and songwriter expressing his art at the height of his talents. He continued to exercise his love of traditional and gutbucket blues while spicing up the disc with straight up rockers and more experimental sounds that veered into the pop polish of Coldplay. It was a great second album. Hey George, don't make us wait so long for the next one.

MTV's Rebel Music - MTV chose Supaman's Prayer Loop Song for it's video of the Week in March of this year and it signaled that the Music broadcaster south of the border was seeing rumblings of a musical revolution. MTV followed up that promise later in the year with the broadcast of Rebel Music which showcased Witko, Inez Jasper, Frank Waln, and Nataani Means.

Breakthrough of the Year Award-  The Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Science gets the breakthrough of the year for awarding A Tribe Called Red the Juno for Breakthrough Group of the Year. Perhaps the glass ceiling won't be completely repaired by the time the Juno nominees are decided for 2015. If all the Native Artists are in one category and there is no room for us in the other categories then we will know.

Idle No More Anthems - Tara Williamson's Come My Way makes me want to blockade the railway and fall in love all at the same time.
Nadjiwan released Broken Treaty Blues which brought the message with a bumping guitar riff, war drum beats and angry chants.

Songs for our Missing and Murdered - Pray Sister Pray was the first single released from Crystal Shawanda's The Whole World's Got the Blues and it was no doubt intentional. In this powerhouse song Crystal lays down one of the harshest lines of the year a cold hard slap in the face of Canadian false humility. "They're just glad another is gone." The prayer at the end of the song is for all of us.
In the song Bella from Leela Gilday's fantastic disc Heart of the People, she sings, "They say we're still to blame for the things that happened to us." It was the truth and it was painful and defiant.
Shawnee who released one of the year's best rock EP's Let It Burn also released a single Canadian Cry to speak out against the silence and asking, "How can you sleep at night?"

Heart Tugger of the Year Award - Rellik's Hank Williams meets Tupac Shakur ballad The Hour about his late mother is beautiful and sad in all the right ways. The guitar is simple and soulful, Nathan Cunningham adds the hook and you have a song that deserves the names referenced.

Biggest WTF Moment of the Year 
- In June, Billy Ray Cyrus is the headliner at Aboriginal Day Live. The organizers must have thought this would bring some much needed mainstream media attention to the event. The only way that would have happened with Billy Ray Cyrus as a headliner is if he twerked his bum against Robin Thicke's crotch during the performance. This is one of the great years for Aboriginal Music and...and...WTF?

B-O-M-B of the Year - A Tribe Called Red dropped a bomb right on American Thanksgiving when they released Burn Your Village to the Ground. The single was trending on Twitter that day and the Huffington Post had it on their front page. The single builds around a speech by Wednesday Addams from the movie Addams Family Values. Wednesday shares that the Native Americans have learned the true intentions of the settlers and will now burn their village down. It is hilarious and menacing and you can dance to it. It may well become a Thanksgiving Classic.

How We Got our Groove Back Award - This was the year in which Native music reclaimed it’s sexuality in a big way. Meet Me at the Pow Wow by Lightning Cloud and Leonard Sumner was filled with cultural references, inside jokes, questionable pickup lines and a singalong chorus for the Men and for the Women. It was the Snagging Anthem of year. Digging Roots goes All Night Long to kickoff their For the Light album. Raven is singing about going deep enough for you baby and he doesn't mean his baritone. I played Crystal Shawanda's Cry Out For More at 2 in the afternoon on my radio show and I was blushing....my, my, Crystal.
It would seem to be some kind of cosmic karma that the original Native American come-on classic would make a comeback forty years later. It was certainly cosmic.

Come back of the Year - Red Bone's Come and Get Your Love was featured in Guardians of the Galaxy which became the biggest movie of the year and the top selling soundtrack of the year.
RedBone's funky classic kicked off the movie that many people are calling a Star Wars for a new generation. The song written by the late Lolly Vegas was the first song by a Native American group to reach the top of the billboard charts. Ring up a few more number ones to that list after this year.

Debut of the Year - Rikki Linklater's The Last Time sounded like Taylor Swift was making the kind of music that made us fall in love with Taylor Swift in the first place.

Album of the Year – Crystal Shawanda – The Whole World’s Got the Blues. This is the best album in a very, very good year. Not just for Native Music but for Canadian music. It is the Golden Age. The star on this glorious year in music is Crystal. I don't think it was easy to make this record. A continuation in the new country genre would be the critical and commercial safe bet. Crystal broke down all the barriers and released the album that sounds like the record she was born to make...bluesy, ballsy, hot and heartbreaking.
Crystal may have come up in Country but her voice always had a raw edge that was too much for Country to contain.  She's more Janis Joplin and Etta James than Martina McBride and "The Whole World's got the Blues" let's us hear that voice. This isn't computerized. The pain, the anger and the pleasure; it's all right here. The lyrics delve into the deepest darkest regions of the soul of Canada itself. It is the best album of the year in Canada. It may be the best album of 2014.

Collaboration of the Ages Award - Dawn Star Rising is the first truly Canadian contribution to the world of ballet. The story of the two young Native People who find that their lives in the city remain imprisoned in the cycle of violence and rape that began in the Indian Residential Schools. There are many moments of breathtaking beauty and heartbreaking silence in this historic work. There is a moment towards the end of the performance. A women is singing a solo hand drum song and it is filled with hope and is gorgeous at the highest. Then the strings come in. The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra joins in with the drum and it takes all I have not to break down and start crying. Maybe there is hope for us to make something beautiful together after all.

Tanya Tagaq Wins Polaris Prize- It is the most prestigious award in Canadian contemporary music and this year the winner was Tanya Tagaq's Animism. Tagaq's selection continues the tradition of the Polaris where winners are often the most complex and challenging music of the year. I am not going to lie to you. I didn't get Tanya's music. I understood it. I respected what she was doing. But that's not what music is about. That is not what art is about. If you can't feel it, you don't get it. 

I was fortunate to be in the audience when Dawn Star Rising made it's debut. In the beginning of the second act after you have been introduced into the reality of the residential school legacy the second half takes you into the horrors of the past. In the darkness the voice beats and we see Tanya centre stage. She moans and grunts and screams and each breath and gasp and rise and fall and fire and will and life define what words cannot. I got it.

The Tour of The Year - Red Ride 2014 featured Kristi Lane Sinclair and Cris Doerksen two artists who are making some of the most dynamic music around. They performed with special guests including George Leach, Iskwe, Nick Sherman and others on every stop of the tour and we can only hope that the Red Ride continues to roll and grow.

Industry Builder We're Gonna Miss Her Award - Miss Melissa is heading to the Desert and a new gig at a rock n roll station in Phoenix Arizona. She built Streetz FM with her bare hands and the proverbially blood, sweat, and tears. The National Aboriginal Music Countdown is an institution that was built by the credibility of her voice and personality. 

Language in the Music Award - Tall Paul put his Prayers in a Song and showcased the struggle to maintain your identity in this world and threw down a challenge for our own community when he rapped how culture is "More than Frybread and Contest Powwows." Digging Roots brought in the flavour of the language to the title track of their album To The Light.

Drop the Mic on 2014 Award: The year ended with Derek Miller dropping his latest disc Rumble. Miller covers the Link Wray classic Rumble which has the distinction of being the only instrumental to be banned from the airwaves for being dangerous. That's how you end a year.


***

This is just what I heard. Great new music from a number of artists that didn't make the list but deserved to be hear such as Teagan Littlechief, Hugh Poorman, Janet Panic, Donny Paranteau, Gary Farmer and the Trouble Makers, Murray Porter, Kinnie Star and on and on. Here are other lists of artists and music that you might want to check out.

RPM's Best Indigenous Music 2014

RPM'S Best Indigenous Videos 2014

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Chickadee Forgot Memory


Each year the Chickadee would hide seeds in thousands of places and she would remember every one of them.  During the cold of winter she would recall seeds hid in light of summer that would feed her and her family.
She picked at the bark. There wasn’t anything there. She picked again. It was gone. It was gone. She moved quickly to the next branch and there wasn’t anything there and then the next and then she stopped.
Someone was watching.

She spun quickly and on the Great Oak sat the Red Headed Woodpecker. She froze in his stare. He held her gaze for a long breath and then turned deliberately and began stabbing and penetrating into the tree. 
He maintained one eye on Chickadee.

“I hate Woodpecker,” she thought.  She imagined what he would smell like when he was dead. She felt satisfaction. Then she shuddered and stilled. 

She scolded herself for creating those thoughts. There was only so much that she could remember.  Her winter feathers were coming in thick. Soon, it would be very cold.
She remained motionless with eyes held shut. She could hear the pounding of her heart and she held her breath until the beating plugged her ears from inside and she was drowning in syrup of dying plasma and tissue. There was the taste of copper in the back of her throat and she pushed hard to the surface.

The light returned.
She opened her eyes and took a breath. She turned her head to the sound of the woodpecker hammering on the Great Oak.

She did not recall the bird.


*

The human beings began the forgetting ceremony by closing tight the door to the sweat lodge. There had been great discussion in the days leading to this moment. It was not a ceremony taken lightly. People had lost their minds and went back to when they were not human beings.

The lodge was small, there was enough room for the four and no more. The thick canvas tarp covered the sapling ribs and had been folded over twice to create a shell of darkness. The young man of the outside used his feet to push the tarp downward and inward. He was the doorman.
Unseen hands tapped against the inside of the lodge and he push down and in around there. Silence signaled that only darkness existed inside the lodge.

The Doorman returned to the fire and covered up the ceremonial stones with flaming wood.  The old man began to sing the song to Chickadee. His helper sitting to his right began to pour water on the stones. The young woman began to cry and her grandmother next to her in the dark joined in with grandfather. The old people sang the song of forgetting to the beat of the Chickadee’s song.

Outside the lodge, the young man was adding more split wood onto the pyre. He was facing the lodge when it started.

He could hear it behind him. It sounded like wind but became a hum and as the song inside had begun the fourth round he knew what it was. The old people’s song was the familiar Chick a dee dee dee Dee.
He stilled and looked into the fire as a thousand tiny wings flew around him and into the lodge.


**

In the morning Chickadee opened her eyes. She could see the spots all over the Great Oak where she had hidden seeds. The ancient tree was throbbing a hundred thousand bubbles of life. She could see around the Great Oak and into the forest beyond. She saw everything.
She saw every place where she had stored a seed during the warm days of summer. She was blinded by the memory of the thousands and thousands and thousands for the days and days and days and days and days.

Chickadee closed her eyes and squeezed as tight as she could. She would use her people’s ancient power to force this reality away. She would do it now; just as she had before, just as she had so many times before.

How many times? How many times? How many times?
She did not know. It was all too much. It was all too much at the same time.  A shiver went through her body and her claws gripped harder her perch. Her head was spinning and she felt like she was going to throw up.

Every little crevice, every little crack, every definition, all the spaces and the lines in between the trees and the branches and the leaves and the lumps and the secret places in the vines and the plants and the ivy.

All the work and work and work to find and collect and to find and to collect and to fight and to flee and to hide and hide and hide and most of all to remember and she could feel her body reeling.
It swelled with the living memory of every moment of her thousand days. It was in her blood pulsating in all the little voices that made up everything that she was. She could hear dead memories speaking the same thing.

HOW CAN YOU FORGET ME!

**

When the girl woke up she knew without checking the time that she slept too long. She couldn’t remember when she had slept as long. She must have been little. She thought for the briefest moment that it was the longest time she had slept.

She rolled over and found the clock. It said 6:25. She looked to the window and the sky was purple behind the venetian blinds.

She remembered that the clocks had fallen forward. It was a day ago. Two days ago. She hated losing that hour each fall. She was always losing track of time for most of the month. She preferred time springing forward. It would slap you into reality on the first day but with Fall Back you were still dealing with effects weeks after.

In school at the top of the hill they taught her that daylight savings was done to benefit farmers. She read on the internet that it was because the Germans did it during World Ward 1 and then everyone followed.

She knew Grandpa’s great uncles had served honourably in World War 2. So did Kookum’s uncles. Still it didn’t make any sense to her. How did we defeat following against our will in order to follow against our will?

She thought about the old movie that she watched with Kookum on Sunday. It was on Turner Classic Movies and was about a bitter writer in the days after World War 2.  The lead was Van Johnson and the bad girl was Kookum’s favourite, Elizabeth Taylor.

She could see Elizabeth Taylor and Van Johnson swoon in love and victory over fascism while a sign stating English Only was prominently displayed in the background.
The smell of bacon took over the senses and she got up. When she entered the kitchen she saw her grandfather at the stove cracking eggs into a cast iron skillet. In a similar pan on the other front burner sputtered strips of bacon.

She had never seen Grandpa cook. She looked out the front window and she saw Kookum. Her grandmother had turned from the prayer rock in the front yard. The girl knew that Kookum had been saying prayers. Kookum was wiping away tears.


***


Chickadee was fighting and crashing into the light of this world. The hunger and the cold were constant and her parents gave all heat and food. In the next breath her sibling is snatched away by something with fur and teeth and she can smell its breath.
Then she was free. She could hop and hide and fly and be wherever she wished to be and she could see the opening beyond the trees.
The next morning Mother had a Grasshopper in her mouth. It was fat and green and mother had sad eyes and Chickadee turned up her beak. Mother held the kicking grasshopper in silence.
She remembered all the spots she had planted the day Mother had sent her away. All the places she had placed seeds and dreamed of being free and on her own.
She did not look back to her mother when she had set upon her own perch for the night. The moon was full and its brightness swallowed up all the stars in the sky and Chickadee knew that this was how you would die; swallowed up by a great light.
She could see her fledging children captured in the air by the Hawks and they would scream her name when they were eaten and all of them would scream her name when they were eaten.
She didn’t want to have eggs anymore. She didn’t want to have any more babies. It was too much. She began to use the forget power of her people. Not just to forget all the thousands of seeds they had stored for the past winter. Chickadee began to willfully forget her pain.
Then she could not stop. She could not stop. She could not stop. Over every little thing until it was for nothing.
Her thoughts settled upon the night before. Her mother and her grandmother and her great grandmother and most of the elders had gathered at her nightly perch by the time she had returned for the night.
Her mother was saying something. She can’t remember what it was.

****










Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Portage and Main - 3


He walked across the 10 by 10 living room and into the smaller kitchen. He found the cleanest dirty glass from the sink and opened the fridge door to grab the water jug. It was only thing inside the gloomy and unsanitary interior other than a mummified onion and a nearly empty jar of salsa topped with a thick grey fuzz.

Is that blood? That’s blood.
The jug was empty.
“Shit.”

Ryan turns to the sink and opens the cold water tap which sputters to life as though it does not appreciate being woken from its slumber. No one has asked for the water on this day. It will hiss and sputter all the way to the top.
It chugs and vomits out rust colored liquid for a moment and soon it is urine colored and soon enough it is clear. He fills the cup and then drinks like he is gasping for air. He hacks some back up as he fills the cup a second time. It’s already working. He puts the jug under the tap and fills it to about a cup and then puts it on the counter and shuts off the water.

He heads to the shower without putting the jug back in the fridge. The shower water is lukewarm and the pressure is non existent. He squeezes a final drop of shampoo out of the bottle and stares ruefully at the full bottle of conditioner that he got a great price. As he massages the foam into his scalp mindful of working the thin and empty spots he recalls the first times he had come into the city on the bus.

It was an exciting and scary place. It was where you would meet people who were coming in and out of the city. This was before the brothers were old enough to go to the Manor and The Savoy.
It was at the bus depot where he had been busted for his first real crime. He still felt bad about it. After all these years.

He had committed other crimes since that one. But that was one he considered to be a real crime. Everything else was something that he figured he had the right to do. No man should tell another man how to live. This was what he believed.
He was sure those words came from Old Lodgeskins from Little Big Man, but he couldn’t be sure about that. Either way, he knows he heard it in a movie and that it was a Hollywood writer’s version of what he thought was the summation of Native American philosophy and as far as Ryan was concerned the writer had nailed it.

He and Laurence had stolen chocolate bars from the convenience store at the bus depot on their grade 9 school trip. It was wrong and they were humiliated. Dad was humiliated. Teased when out with the men. That wasn’t the worse part. Father Marcien preached a cruel and judgmental teaching on the commandment “Thou shall not steal.” It brought shame upon the family because it happened out there. Amongst the white people.

That’s how our communities are. No one will ever forget any mistake that you make. This was part of the ongoing history of residential school. You are either being judged or you are the judge. You are the sinner or the condemner. Make a mistake and we will never forget.

That’s how it was with the church. Poor Noah. He listens to the craziest message left by God and he follows through on it. He builds the Ark and loads the animals and saves all the creatures from the Great Flood. Later in the Bible he gets hammered and he wanders around naked and someone puts that in the book. That’s not cool. Not cool.

*

There was no bus serving the neighbourhood on Sundays. Ryan stood looking up as the words “not in service” tracked in an endless loop.  It was the same posture he held each morning as he caught the bus downtown to the Millennium Library.
He took a deep drag of his cigarette. It would be the last one until he got back up north although he was likely to bum a smoke at the stop in Lundar. If there were Neechies smoking, he would be good. If it was only Whites they would expect a toonie. One usually just held the coin out and got either a nod or a shake although someone would usually shout out “Here!” and be reaching for their pack as they walked towards you.
He took in a deep drag filling his lungs to capacity and then spewing out the obnoxious miasma.
It was a crime. It was also a shitty thing to do. But the fact was there was no bus service and it was cold as fuck outside. So he smoked his smoke inside the bus shelter with adolescent defiance. This was a good smoke. He had not had a good smoke in a long time.
A car turned left down the street and his good feeling disappeared. He cupped the cigarette into his hand like an adolescent. What the hell? He was old enough not to give a fuck but that changed when he moved onto Scotia Street. He had never seen so many cop cars patrol a street in his life. It wasn’t policing. It was security.
Some of the oldest richest homes are on this street along the Red River and some of the finest crackhouses are just a stone’s throw away.
He looked to the right.  Down this street was the Battle of Seven Oaks. It was there that the Metis Flag, the infinity flag is officially recorded in the history books of Canada. In was 1816, a generation before there was a country and almost 150 years before the Maple Leaf flew over Parliament. If you followed this street on the way to Kildonan Park you will pass a marker, a plaque on the corner. Not much. Truth be told and if you don't know where it is, you are not going to find it.
Also along this street there is a beautiful little resting area with a park bench and a flower garden and one of the few places where one can sit along the banks of the Red River. Here there is another plaque for a nuclear physicist that may have saved the lives of his colleagues or who may have caused the accident in a Homeresque error. It depends if you wanted to believe the plaque or the Wikipedia page.

It was cold that much was sure. Ryan dropped the smoke on the floor and crushed it with his feet. It would be 30 minutes if he made good time, 40 if he was slow.

***






Monday, June 9, 2014

Jonah, The Bill Collector

The bill collector had a Manitoba area code and his name was Jonah. My co-worker handed me the note and shrugged his shoulders in apology. I gave him the no problem nod and wave. I took the note home with me, this wasn't something to be dealt with at work.

I have been reading the Bible in a random manner. I thought this was a reason to read the Book of Jonah. It is one of the shorter books and that didn't hurt. From what I could recall the story of Jonah was about how the Creator had saved Jonah's life after he had been swallowed by a whale or giant fish. Jonah's faith in the Creator and his various good deeds and positive outlook was rewarded.

It turns out that the story I remembered is most likely based on the illustrated version for kids that kept the messages simple. I never did any serious reading of the Bible as an adult until I read Robert Crumb's Book of Genesis about five years ago. It is an exceptional telling of this text and the illustrations brought everything to vibrant and steamy life.

In reading the Book of Jonah, our hero runs away when the Creator has charged him with the duty of preaching to the people in the city of Nineveh. Jonah doesn't want to do this and he jumps on a ship and heads out to the sea. A storm is waged upon the ship of such ferocity that everyone aboard knows that they are being cursed by a higher power and they all pray to their various gods to no avail.

They draw lots at this time trying to decipher who has brought this cursed storm about their vessel. It is Jonah who pulls the lot and finally at this time he admits that he is fleeing the command of his God. Understandably the people on the ship don't think this is very cool and Jonah is cast overboard. Jonah is swallowed by the whale and the seas become calm.

Inside the whale, Jonah prays for forgiveness and says that he will fulfill his calling. The whale spits Jonah up on dry land and he goes about preaching the word to the people of Nineveh. He tells them that the city will be overthrown in the next 40 days. He convinces the people of the city even to their king to fast and wear sackcloth and sit in ashes. The Creator sees that many of the people of the city are repenting and Nineveh is spared. "But it displeased Jonah exceedingly and he was very angry."

Jonah was preaching the end of days for the people of Nineveh and he was angry that the Creator did not bring it about. Jonah then goes and sits outside the city and stares at it with anger and pretty much pouts for the rest of his life. Jonah could not offer to others the forgiveness given to him by the Creator.

This is not the story that I knew. I wondered what else I had misunderstood about the Bible. That weekend a Jehovah's Witness came by the house and found me outside working in the garden. He provided the proper pronunciation of Nineveh and suggested I read the book of St. Matthew, which is the story of Christ. I said I would.

I soon came across a discrepancy that I find almost revolutionary. In the Bible, when Jesus says the Lord's prayer he says, "Give us this day our daily bread and forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors."

I had always known the prayer as "Forgive us our trespasses as those who trespass against us." If someone trespasses against you that doesn't mean they owe you a debt. In the difference, the lesson is less if not lost. Jesus was anti-capitalism. He didn't just tip over the money changers tables once, he did it twice.

Not sure what all that means, but I'm pretty sure Jonah the Bill Collector is going to be disappointed.


Epilogue

I take the call the next time it comes into the office. Jonas, his real name, apologizes for calling at work and asks if I am the Mr. Morrisseau that lived on Cathedral in Winnipeg. I say no. He then adds a so to his first sorry and I hang up.

It wasn't for me.