Academic journal article Canadian University Music Review

First Nations Popular Music in Canada: Musical Meaning and the Politics of Identity

Academic journal article Canadian University Music Review

First Nations Popular Music in Canada: Musical Meaning and the Politics of Identity

Article excerpt

In the last decade, the output of First Nations popular music has steadily increased. Paving the way for the more recent commercial successes of artists such as Susan Aglukark, Lawrence Martin, the Seventh Fire, and Don Ross, to name only a few, is the unprecedented, late 1980s success of the Innu group Kashtin, a duo consisting of Florent Voilant and Claude McKenzie, both Innu (Montagnais) from Northern Quebec.1 A decade later, unique forms of syncretic popular music are quietly making headway within mainstream Canadian culture. As this music has received attention nationally through the mass media, it has become an important medium for the creation, negotiation, and maintenance of Canadian First Peoples' social and cultural identity. As Stokes, among others, has articulated, music is socially meaningful in that it provides means by which people recognize social and cultural identities and the boundaries that separate them.2 As such, First Nations popular music functions as an emblem of symbolic differentiation between Canadian natives and non-natives. Musical meanings, however, on individual and social levels, are in a constant state of negotiation and mediation and are dependent on one's sociopolitical positioning.

In this essay, I discuss the music of Lawrence Martin and the musical group Kashtin and examine how these artists and their music function in the construction of a Canadian First Nations cultural identity.3 The shifting, polysemic nature of this identity is highlighted in examining how concurrent political events in other social spheres function in the negotiation of musical meaning.

I would first like to discuss Lawrence Martin, a mixed-blood Cree musician from the small Northern Ontario town of Moose River. He has released two albums to date: Wapistan Is Lawrence Martin (Sioux Lookout: First Nations Music, 1993) and The Message (Sioux Lookout: First Nations Music, 1995).

Martin's music is a stylistic blend of modern country-rock and the Irish and French jigs and reels he learned in his youth. He sings in a mix of Cree and English. His English-language songs are more overtly political, dealing with many of the social issues faced by First Nations peoples: residential school experiences, cultural alienation, and the loss of religion and language. Conversely, his Cree-language songs more typically deal with themes of cultural pride and rejuvenation. Martin's music includes a number of chants written in a traditional Cree musical style. In recasting a traditional sounding chant in a modern country-rock style, a song such as "Elders" functions as a symbolic representation of the modern Native socio-cultural circumstance. During an interview between Martin and myself, he spoke about the inclusion of Native chanting in his music:

I use the chant to challenge society-and to inspire the young Native people to feel good about their culture. It's cool we can sing our music anywhere; we don't have to just hide in the bush and do our powwow ceremonies. Plus I want society to also understand and accept the music as part of the Canadian mosaic.4

Martin's music provides a place where some of the conflicting aspects of modern Native identity are worked out. In his own case, his music is a reflection of his mixed Cree and Irish heritage. He commented on this, saying:

The area I come from, the Hudson Bay area-a lot of the Irish and the Scottish and French came up that way and they brought their music with them. The Cree people adapted to this music fairly quickly. And the elders used to tell me that the Crees would be playing with their hand drums along with the French or the Irish people as they were playing their fiddles. And over the years, the fiddle has been really popular with the Cree people in the James Bay area. And so today, when you go up there, you still hear a lot of these jigs and reels.5

The fiddle tradition among James Bay Cree may date as far back as the seventeenth century, a time when the Hudson's Bay Company trading posts were first established in the area. …

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