For the past 18 months I have had the great honour of working on a unique piece of music entitled Woman of the Drum. It will see its premiere on March 24, 2019 at Knox Church, Waterloo when it will be realized by Mino Ode Kwewak N’Gamawak (Mino Ode for short) and Inshallah Singers. A collaboration with poet Rae Crossman, it is a tribute to indigenous elder Jeanne Becker. Rae wrote the poem in honour of Jeanne after she had a serious illness. Years earlier he had participated in a drum making workshop that was organized by Jeanne and it had a profound affect on him. He had always felt that the poem would work well set to music and he approached me not long after our earlier project, River Flow, had been finished. Jeanne was the founder of Mino Ode and Rae wished to involve them. When he mentioned this fact to me, I took a deep breath, then I said yes, of course. Why the deep breath? Mino Ode is an indigenous drum group and Indigenous Relations within Canada are at a very interesting time. I am very supportive of indigenous rights and the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions calls to action, but at the same time there are very serious questions being asked in the arts community in regards to appropriation and use of voice. I took on the project out of my trust in Rae and Kelly Laurila of Mino Ode. This post is about the how this piece came about. Besides being an interesting compositional journey, it has been an interesting journey for me as an artist making choices in the country’s cultural landscape. Before I talk about the actual process I need to talk about some of my cultural viewpoints.
The colonial cultures of North America (now predominantly Canada and the United States, but also including white Latin America) have a long tradition of absorbing indigenous cultures and using their symbols. This was often an attempt to create a separate identity from the mother countries and a romanticized view of preserving dying nations. Examples are the use of totem poles throughout the continent when they are specific to the Pacific Northwest, and the rise or Redman Societies – groups of white men from the upper classes who would dress in stereotypical native “garb”. While in some ways they may have felt they were “honouring” these nations, it was, and is, in fact, turning them into an other, a curiosity, and laying claim to their cultural agency. While this “red facing” has had a long and slow dying away along with its unseemly brethren black-face and yellow-face, the prejudice in performance and art creation can persist.
The recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has had a deep effect on the arts community. It has exposed long standing situations of cultural appropriation and inspired many non-indigenous artists and arts groups to reach out in an attempt of inclusiveness and cultural support. While the latter is to be commended and is most often done in a spirit of altruism, it can have the effect of accentuating long standing issues if the artist is not aware of the colonial history involved; it becomes cultural appropriation done in the name of good intentions. An eagerness to be involved, and to show an alliance with the cause of indigenous rights can strip the group that is being supported of all agency and remove their own voice. It is the power imbalance in a saviour complex. The settler has their own way of doing things and control most of the resources. This can lead to a situation of them speaking on behalf the Indigenous group and explaining how they themselves have been transformed by the process. It becomes all about the settler’s experience. The settler’s experience once again. There is a great forum on the CBC Radio One program Ideas where theatre artist Jani Lauzon, documentary filmmaker James Cullingham, and CBC host and journalism teacher Duncan McCue discuss collaborating with indigenous and non-indigenous teams. What struck me the most -- and has been supported in my experiences from earlier work -- was the cultural differences in how the hierarchies of a team, and the work silos must be approached in a completely different way. As a composer raised and trained within the European classical tradition, the idea of the great individual artist reigning supreme over their work is firmly ingrained within the culture. In the last fifty years or so this philosophy has formed cracks with the resurfacing of improvised music, aleatoric music and artist collectives; but the individual creator still carries an enormous weight. The composer decides what is to be done, the performer takes those instructions and produces the art. It is an understood partnership with clearly defined roles.
What happens when this system encounters another way of doing things? Especially when it is a culture that has been invisible but in plain sight for centuries; a culture lived by people who we assumed were one of us. These are not people from the other side of the world. It can be disorienting. Mino Ode Kwewak N’Gamawak -- The Good Hearted Women Singers – is a song circle. They formed as a way for indigenous women in the community to gather together, to share songs and to heal. The individuals involved often come from backgrounds where they have experienced racism, trauma and cultural denial. They sing songs that have been shared with them and they have a distinct way of using the songs for engaging with their traditions and assisting with spiritual healing. In recent years they have taken on a larger community presence that includes engaging with events and being guests at concerts.
Talking with Kelly Laurila, the group’s song carrier, I became aware of the community events that were successful and the ones that were not. There were some that were an awful experience for the group. In those cases there were experiences of tokenism and expectations to just fit in with the event with no understanding of how Mino Ode would want to perform or to what requirements they may need. The organizations inviting Mino Ode expected them be like any other musical guest from a settler tradition. They were expected to come in and set up, then do their set and go home. With Mino Ode the songs are approached much differently. When they sing they use the space in a particular way and it may not conform to a traditional concert. It can include a smudging ceremony. Many of these songs have a spiritual significance. We also cannot ignore the racial situation. There is an unconscious imbalance of power whenever there is a gathering of white people and indigenous people. It has been there for hundreds of years whether we like it or not. This is White Privilege. What is the secret to the successful partnerships? The answer is something as simple as communication.
When Kelly, Rae and I were meeting to discuss the work we spent hours just talking about expectation. For me it was a time of just listening. As I listened, that small unsettled feeling of being pushed into an uncomfortable zone crept up on me. It was coloured a touch by the issue which caused my quick intake of breath I mentioned earlier. How was I going to write a piece for a European choir and a drum circle of the type as Mino Ode without cramming them into a position that denies their agency and the power of what they do? I also did not want to take their songs and use them for my own purposes like so many other acts of appropriation. I have sung along with Mido Owe at different events and recognize some of their songs, but I do not know how to use them with the respect they deserve. It would be with the utmost arrogance to tell them what to sing and how, per my tradition, when they have their own way of using the songs. On the other side of the coin I had a choir that was looking tom me to give them notes and to inform them on how to sing them. They wanted me to do my job. Fortunately, I enjoy a creative challenge.
An important historical document informed my creative approach. It is the Two Row Wampum,
the first treaty between an indigenous nation in North America and a European nation. The Two Row Wampum was presented to the Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam by the Haudenosaunee in 1613 as an agreement on how to work together. At its core is the metaphor of two vessels sharing a waterway but not interfering with the steering each other’s vessel. This treaty has influenced indigenous and settler relations ever since. Using this image of separate but together helped me over the hurdle of stealing the voice of the drum group. I decided to just let the drum group do what they do best. I would not compose for them at all. This doesn’t let them off the hook entirely because what they choose to do has immense impact of the entire piece.
The choir is where I have my comfort zone so I composed only for them, but with a wrinkle. I did not want the two groups singing completely by themselves as that would not work with the project. The choir part is scored without rhythm or bar lines, just stemless notes. While the pitches are in a C major of the page the pitches are to be transposed to whichever key the drum circle’s song is in. This goes as well for the piece’s rhythm, tempo and general feel. The choir is required to really listen and pay attention to what and how the members of the drum circle are singing to understand how they are to proceed. Structurally, it is divided between a main choir and a SATB quartet. The drum circle sings a few rounds of a song, then the choir sings a section. The drum circle finishes its song and the choir takes over again. At the end, they all come together to sing a final drum circle song. What is happening is a moment of reconciliation. The choir need to meet the drum circle on the drum circle’s own terms. They must listen to what is being given and incorporate what they have heard into their own decisions.
As one can see, the Two Row Wampum metaphor doesn’t completely fit by the end. Kelly shared an Annishnaabek teaching of the braid. Simply put, when we all come together we can not be broken. The braid is stronger than its individual parts.
Working on this project has been a very enlightening experience and one that helped answer my own artistic questions in the ongoing debate about what appropriation is and what it is not, and the role and responsibilities of the colonist in modern Canada. This will be a steady journey of always learning about our relationships by communicating and treating each other with the respect and compassion that we all deserve.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.