It's been a while... For those who don't know me, I'd like to introduce myself properly. My name is Kevin Howes and I am Canadian citizen of settler/immigrant heritage, humbly and respectfully working out of the territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. I am a 43 year-old artist, musician, DJ, writer, journalist, filmmaker, photographer, producer, promoter, and connector of people, listening, learning, and sharing under the Voluntary In Nature umbrella since 2006.
I've recently returned from another journey to the east, landing to rare winter conditions here on the coast after a spell in Toronto, Montreal, and Ottawa. Since November of 2014, I have been on (and off) the road raising awareness about the artists featured on the Grammy-nominated Native North America (Vol. 1): Aboriginal Folk, Rock, and Country 1966-1984 compilation. These important songs and stories have motivated this labour of love, an honest attempt to bridge cultures, generations, and eras of technology. This is not a marketing exercise or cash grab, but a organic extension of my passion (and that of the artists who I work w/).
With extensive experience in music and event production, it was clear to me from the outset that NNA V1 was going to be much more than an album in the shops. This history hadn't vanished. It was alive and breathing and still thriving! Duke Redbird was an active poet and educator while Willie Thrasher could be found busking on the waterfront in the town of Nanaimo, an ambassador for his community. Why not help to organize a gathering so that audiences could celebrate these trailblazing Indigenous artists through their songs, stories, films, and poetry? In fact, I felt it to be my responsibility to push beyond record retail. The first Native North America gathering was held in Toronto's Kensington Market at Double Double Land on November 28, 2014, with Duke Redbird and a 16 mm print screening of Willie Dunn's seminal 1968 film, The Ballad of Crowfoot. The past, present, and future rolled into one that evening with a healthy audience of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. A like-minded event on December 11 at Vancouver's Lido bar with Willie Thrasher and his current singing partner Linda Saddleback drew so much attention that we had to host two separate gatherings on the same night.
Since these humble beginnings, there have been up to 15 NNA-related gatherings from coast-to-coast and into northern communities. Each has provided a stage for First Nations, Métis, and Inuit artists to share. They have taken a variety of configurations (the largest being the grassroots Trinity-St Paul's edition with performances from ten artists featured on NNA V1 in additional to Dakota/Anishinaabe MC/host and legendary broadcaster/author Brian Wright-McLeod), but have carried the same positive spirit of Indigenous expression, awareness, love, and support. Apart from a small yet helpful Canada Council travel grant to assist w/ the Winnipeg Folk Festival in 2016, these events have received no direct grant funding for myself or the artists. I would like to shame Music BC for rejecting a $2,000.00 CDN grant application for myself and Willie Thrasher and Linda Saddleback (all B.C. residents) in the fall of 2017 for our travels to Sackville, New Brunswick, and Toronto for two NNA-related showcase events. Please tell me how full, appreciative audiences with people of all ages and backgrounds, a national CBC recording and broadcast, and a glowing review by the world's most respected newspaper constitute a "poor marketing plan." It's 2018 and this is what we are up against. Has anything changed?
Willie Thrasher and Linda Saddleback backstage at the Native North America Gathering (Colin Medley photo)
Ultimately, I must thank the artists whose open and willing participation has made any of this possible as well as the co-organizers (and their sponsors), venues, and audiences who have come together to make history with us. Each trip requires months of preparation at VIN HQ, extensive communication, securing media, promotion, and the production itself. Transcending any backend challenges, the Ottawa Native North America Gathering, held at the Babs Asper Theatre in the National Arts Centre, was a significant moment of connection for the artists and those in attendance, even in the face of total devastation. Meaningful reconciliation was achieved. I do not use these words lightly. As I briefly mentioned from the stage, I want to thank MEGAPHONO for making this collaboration possible alongside everyone at the NAC, the National Film Board of Canada for letting us license the public usage of their films, but most importantly to Alanis Obomsawin (OC, GOQ), Elder Dr. Duke Redbird, Willie Thrasher and Linda Saddleback, Willy Mitchell, Eric Landry, Leland Bell, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Nick Ferrio, Ansley Simpson, the late, great Willie Dunn, and Rosanna Deerchild. All of the artists came together from different regions and it was exciting to see everyone reunite and in some cases, connect for the first time (the Ottawa gathering included artists not featured on the compilation itself: Alanis Obomsawin, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Nick Ferrio, and Ansley Simpson, an honour). It was also an honour to meet Willy Mitchell and Leland Bell's partners as well as Fred Savard who works w/ Alanis. Both myself and Lawrence Dunn had met Fred in Montreal this past December while conducting research on the upcoming Willie Dunn Anthology, set for a year end release by Light in the Attic Records.
Held annually, MEGAPHONO is a music showcase and industry festival who host a very ambitious schedule of concerts, panel discussions, and networking opportunities for artists, delegates, and audiences from around the world, though emphasizing local talent. Upon arrival, I was whisked into a conference room to be interviewed by journalist and author Michael Barclay (Macleans, Polaris) w/ an aim to "dig into" my methodology and how I have "helped to bring the work of artists previously overlooked by the music industry into the limelight, and how these projects have built community." I'd like to thank Michael and MEGAPHONO's Jon Bartlett and Rachel Weldon for this opportunity to speak my mind about my experience and my views on the business I find myself working in (just the tip of the iceberg). The JUNOS (which are being held in Vancouver this year) are caught sleeping once again on so many levels. Zzz...
Kevin Howes (aka Sipreano) MEGAPHONO interview (Ming Wu photo)
Next on the busy agenda was as trip to the CBC (or Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for our International readers, Canada's national broadcaster) for a live drive-home show interview w/ Duke and Willie Thrasher to help raise awareness about the upcoming NAC events. With so much to talk about there is never enough time, but Willie injected a little comedy (as usual) into the proceedings w/ an unexpected shout out to his dog Fluffy back home. The following day was even busier, a public discussion in the afternoon with Alanis, Duke, Willy, and Leland, and the Native North America Gathering in the evening. Indigenous Trailblazers: Carving Paths Through Tradition was a mid-day panel moderated by Rosanna Deerchild (host of CBC's Unreserved) which also featured Cody Coyote, Melody McKiver, Jeremy Dutcher, and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, representing a variety of distinct First Nations. The talk was personal and illuminating for those assembled in the stylish foyer of the NAC, expressing thoughts about Indigeneity, creation, progress, non-Native interest, and the business of music and culture itself.
Duke Redbird and Willie Thrasher at CBC Ottawa (Chris Gergley photo)
After a much needed meal and some rest, it was time to focus on the gathering itself, some six months in the making. The energy backstage was palpable as the eclectic audience came together in unison and in great numbers. The Babs Asper Theatre is a special venue with helpful professional staff and organization. They made sure that each and every participant was made to feel welcome and comfortable on stage. Thank you. Elder Annie Smith St-Georges greeted everyone to the region and commented that "This is history coming back alive, imagine!" a compliment to the positive energy of the evening.
Elder Annie Smith St-Georges opening the Native North America Gathering (Scott Doubt photo)
And then the screen lowered... "Always... It's on!!!" read the VIN Instagram (VINstagram?) post, letting the electronic universe know that The Ballad of Crowfoot was being screened. And yet again, we were extremely blessed to have some of Willie's family in attendance. Their support is so meaningful.
"The Ballad of Crowfoot" (Courtesy of the NFB) (Chris Gergley photo)
After a brief introduction by Rosanna Deerchild, Duke Redbird was the first artist to take to the stage and set the tone w/ a lengthy poem that took listeners through his life of creation as well as a reflection of the changing times. It is always a pleasure (and honour) to hear what Duke has to share. He makes us think. He teaches. We learn. The next performer on the NAC's large stage was Eric Landry. Sitting on a stool with his "talking drum" in tow, Eric delivered three songs including "Out Of The Blue," as featured on Native North America (Vol. 1) as well as music from his forthcoming album. Leland Bell followed with "Messenger," another standout from NNA V1, based on a "vision quest." Leland also sung original Anishinaabemowin language material, a treat for everyone. Willy Mitchell started his program with an animated story before performing a series of original tunes. He concluded w/ "Big Policeman," a musical account of his personal experience w/ police brutality as a teenager.
Duke Redbird at the NAC as part of the Native North America Gathering (Chris Gergley photo)
Leland Bell at the NAC as part of the Native North America Gathering (Chris Gergley photo)
Eric Landry at the NAC as part of the Native North America Gathering (Chris Gergley photo)
Willy Mitchell at the NAC as part of the Native North America Gathering (Chris Gergley photo)
As if things couldn't get any more real, Rosanna announced the incoming news of the Gerald Stanley acquittal in the Colten Boushie murder. There was a rumble, then a spray of loud, pained words shouted from the crowd. Silence. Tears. Anger. Emptiness. More pain. The moment seemed to stretch from seconds into long minutes. Young, old, Indigenous, non-Indigenous, we were all suspended by the weight of this horror together and will never forget what happened. "I just want everybody in this room to know how important it is for these kinds of gatherings to happen," said Rosanna with a steadfast conviction. "For these kinds of story tellers to tell their stories..." It speaks to the immense strength and conviction of Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Ansley Simpson, and Nick Ferrio (as well as Rosanna) for centering the energy with a moment of silence, followed by meaningful words and song.
Rosanna Deerchild at the Native North America Gathering (Scott Doubt photo)
After a warm greeting, Leanne elaborated on the evening and its participants before a note of music was played: "It's an honour to be sharing the stage with these fantastic elder artists, legends, who have given our communities so much. Who have given us hope and strength and joy and who have carried our hearts in heavy times like these. I'm so grateful and I'm so thankful for the people that have come before me and shared the stage with me tonight. I wouldn't exist as an Anishinaabe artist without their tremendous, tremendous, contribution."
Nick Ferrio, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Ansley Simpson at the Native North America Gathering (Chris Gergley photo)
"Road Salt" followed, a story/song/poem about the friendship between a crow and a deer. Its guitar interplay and voices spoken and sung washed over the still tender room with love, blessed. A song described by Leanne as an "eagle song" continued the short set, culminating in an empathetic interpretation of "I Pity The Country" by Willie Dunn, a devastating song given an added dimension of poignancy considering the night's events and our proximity to the Parliament buildings. Now sitting in the audience, it brought me back in time...
I met Willie Dunn at the end of the winter of 2013, a handful of months before he passed on. Willie was living in Ottawa's Vanier neighbourhood at the time and wasn't in the best of health. We had been speaking on the phone for a couple of years prior and it was such an honour to connect in person and for him to give me his blessing to work with his music and film. Willie knew all too well the crooked nature of the record business, but I like to think that he understood that I was (and still am) coming from a place of integrity. I know that I am trying my best. It's how I was taught by my family and friends and old mentors like Ty Scammell as well as the artists themselves. I will champion your creations forever Willie!
In preparation for the release of Native North America (Vol. 1), I dug deep into source materials from the 1960s-80s wave of Indigenous cultural expression to supplement my extensive range of first person interviews. Vinyl records, books, newspapers such as the revolutionary Akwesasne Notes, and likeminded films such as Cold Journey, a feature length move about the residential school system, directed by Martin Defalco for the NFB in 1975. In my research I had uncovered word of a movie called Amisk by Alanis Obomsawin, that featured footage of Willie Dunn (as well as Duke Redbird and Sugluk Band) shot in the mid-1970s at a series of Save James Bay concerts held in Montreal. Long out of print, I was luckily able to procure a DVD copy from the film board.
The NAC screen lowered once more and Willie appeared to those assembled, performing "Buffalo Song" with a power and grit rarely heard in folk music. Willie's tough vocals clashed against his aggressive strumming arm moving up and down with both eyes closed shut, tranced out, and intense. To have Alanis Obomsawin with us to segue from her clip of Willie into her set was a gift from the creator. At 85 years of age and with over fifty films under her belt (the most recent, Our People Will Be Healed, is essential viewing) Alanis has recently returned to the performing after a lengthy absence. Active as a singer and drummer since the mid-1960s, she was responsible for bringing together a variety of Indigenous talent (traditional and contemporary) at the Mariposa Folk Festival for years and is now singing onstage again. Incredible.
At the National Arts Centre, Alanis shared three spine tingling songs and a letter written to her old friend Willie. It brought such joy to my heart to see her connect with friends old and new and share her gifts with us. The definition of inspiration and celebration. Willie Thrasher and Linda Saddleback were the final performers of the gathering and brought the house down with a new song called "The Sacred Fire Of Peace" and a call-and-response chant that shook the foundations of the venue and brought all of the artists on stage in song and dance.
Willie Thrasher and Linda Saddleback at the Native North America Gathering (Chris Gergley photo)
After a rousing standing ovation, the backstage was overflowing with thanks, thoughts, ideas, and hugs, representing the gamut of emotion. There were photos and more interviews as well (much thanks to Xavier and Rolf). We were thrilled to have many distinguished guests with us. Thank you for your presence.
Alanis Obomsawin and L. Bell backstage at the Native North America Gathering (Colin Medley photo)
Duke Redbird backstage at the Native North America Gathering (Colin Medley photo)
Native North America Gathering poster (Colin Medley photo)
The following day, the veteran artists assembled at the life-affirming Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health in Vanier, a few blocks from where I met w/ Willie Dunn back in 2013. A basket of beautifully crafted drums and rattles were brought out to play along to an spontaneous series of songs, stories, and poetry. A big thanks to Sylvie and everyone at the Centre. Willie Thrasher gifted everyone with his spirited version of Redbone's "Alcatraz," a personal favourite, that reaches deep into my soul each and every time. With chilli, butter, bread, and non-alcoholic beverages in hand, we filled the spacious boardroom for a complete screening of Alanis's Amisk. To watch Duke watch his younger self deliver his landmark poem "Old Woman" with a fire so intense as to light the world on fire reminded me that he did just that, and continues to do so, creating real change in society through his open contributions, for example, with the Toronto District School Board. Music industry be damned! This is for the children! This is for the arts! This is for the spirit!
Willy Mitchell at the Wabano Centre (Kevin Howes photo)
Native North America Gathering and friends at the Wabano Centre (Chris Gergley photo)
"...the reason I am writing is because of the "White Roots of Peace" quality that the evening had. There was present an invisible spirit of unit, shared togetherness, which brought together a rather disparate group of people together who participated in the evening rather than being spectators to it. Wide range of age - lots of seniors, lots of youth; Indigenous and non-Indigenous. All of whom going home quite satisfied, inspired, renewed without even thinking about what was happening. Just happened. There was no message, but they got the message."
Native North America has evolved into much more than an archival music compilation. And it will mean different things to people of different backgrounds, but I am honoured to have played my small role in helping to make it known. Through their music, words, film, and being, these trailblazing artists have taught me truths that I wasn't taught in school, to see through an Indigenous lens, one that is essential for, to quote Willie Dunn, "a better tomorrow."
*I'd like to send special thanks to NNA art director Chris Gergley for joining us on the road and taking such lovely photos (More to come!)
**If you would like to host a Native North America Gathering in your community, please be in touch...