Indigenous Music and Musicians
A Tribe Called Red - Photo : Falling Tree Photography
A community’s musicians convey the heart of their culture through their stories and sounds. For Indigenous communities in Canada, music is an essential part of daily life and the backbone of spiritual, cultural and kinship beliefs. But just like Canada’s rich and varied landscapes and its complex linguistic tapestry, with around 60 distinct Indigenous languages spoken, Indigenous music is also incredibly diverse.
While traditional instruments like drums, flutes, rattles, and vocals feature highly in traditional music, there is a wide spectrum of distinct musical traditions and repertoire. Songs can be composed by a person or received in a dream or vision, and can be passed down from one generation to the next; many traditional songs sung today are the same melodies which have persisted in Indigenous communities for thousands of years. In recent years, new genres have emerged that incorporate contemporary musical styles like pop, rock, country, and hip-hop. Additionally, some Indigenous artists choose to infuse their community’s traditional musical stylings with contemporary language, issues techniques, and instruments.
Ottawa-based electronic music group A Tribe Called Red mix dance, hip-hop, and dubstep beats with pow-wow drums and vocals, poetry, story-telling and collaborations with other Indigenous artists. They call their style Electric Pow Wow and inspire social action by speaking for Indigenous rights and against cultural appropriation.
Today’s Indigenous musicians connect with traditional music styles while telling contemporary stories, like the iconic Cree singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie, known best for her love songs with an activist touch. Music is also a way to preserve the language and celebrate community as demonstrated by fast-rising northern stars, The Jerry Cans, who share a unique mix of Inuktitut alt-country, throat singing, and reggae, celebrating their Inuk culture and hometown of Iqualuit, Nunavut. The band performs many of their songs in Inuktitut and is passionate about preserving the language even as the north and their home community of Iqaluit evolve.
Another northern star is Tanya Tagaq, an award-winning Inuit throat singer from Ikaluktuutiak who fuses traditional throat singing with percussion, symphonic composition, and electronic elements, while her themes feature political commentary and social equality. From DJs to country stars to fiddlers to rappers to multiple Grammy-nominated pow wow drum group, Northern Cree, today’s Indigenous music scene is as diverse as its people. Indigenous musicians provide social commentary on today’s culture, language, and issues to share with the world.
Canada’s calendar is filled with events that showcase the diverse styles of contemporary Indigenous music. Held every spring in Winnipeg as a part of the Manito Ahbee Festival, the Indigenous Music Awards (IMA) celebrates Indigenous music from across the world through a televised awards show.
Aboriginal Music Week presents Métis, Inuit, and Indigenous artists performing a variety of genres. APTN hosts Indigenous Day Live, an annual concert series in different locations across Canada celebrating National Aboriginal Day in Canada (June 21).
This year the 2018 Juno Awards nominees included nine Indigenous artists and groups. Buffy Sainte-Marie was nominated twice, for Indigenous Music Album of the Year and Contemporary Roots Album of the Year. The Nunavut Sivuniksavut Performers and the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra were nominated for Classical Album of the Year: Large Ensemble. The Jerry Cans were nominated for Contemporary Roots Album of the Year. Tanya Tagaq was nominated for Alternative Album of the Year. A Tribe Called Red was nominated for Group of the Year. Nominees for Indigenous Music Album of the Year included DJ Shub, Indian City, Iskwé and Kelly Fraser.
Aboriginal Tourism BC lists a variety of great events that feature music, including seasonal powwows. Yukon First Nations Culture & Tourism Association also has an extensive list that includes the Adäka Cultural Festival and Moosehide Gathering in Dawson City. Hundreds of pow wows happen in communities throughout the summer across Canada. Pow wows are celebrations and are open to the public, check local listings.