Home News Inuit pop, Algonquin rap, Innu reggae aim for mainstream

Inuit pop, Algonquin rap, Innu reggae aim for mainstream

Published on 08/01/2010

Montreal — Swapping skin drums for synthesizers and replacing throat singing with slam poetry, young Canadian aboriginals are reinventing traditional North American native music in a bid to bridge two cultures.

The sounds are familiar to anyone who has recently watched MTV, but the themes deal with mostly native issues, such as the hidden hardships of living on Canadian Indian reserves.

"We’re able to remain true to our culture, even if we no longer wear feather war bonnets," says Samian in his hit single "The Peace of the Braves," named for a 2002 treaty signed by Quebec’s government and the Cree Nation.

Dressed in 18th century native and voyageur costumes to film a music video with Quebec band Loco Locass in the Canadian outback, with pointed hand gestures and a twisted posture pantomime of American hip hop culture, this young Algonquin is the first rapper to sing in his native language.

Born on a remote reserve in Quebec, he and northern Inuit Elisapie Isaac are leading a new music movement in this country, sampling centuries-old sounds and mixing them with new beats.

"It’s a new generation with new forms of expression and a particular emphasis on the spoken word," commented Andre Dudemaine, president of the First Peoples’ Festival, which for 20 years has showcased some of the best of Canadian aboriginal music.

From reggae singer Shauit of the Innu community in Quebec, to DJ Madeskimo who traces his roots to Canada’s Nunavut territory in the far north, to aboriginal folk music pioneer Buffy Sainte-Marie, born on a reserve in western Saskatchewan, Canadian aboriginals are now represented in almost all music categories.

The website innutube.com offers a sampling of their latest sounds.

"These are young people raised in a more mixed culture, allowing them to bridge First Nations forms of expression with the Canadian mainstream," said Dudemaine.

"We have more access to what is modern and we really like it," Elisapie Isaac told AFP. "We’re beginning to express ourselves artistically, not just with tiny sculptures."

"This new art form (for aboriginals) is really taking off," she said.

Born in Canada’s hinterland, Samian and Elisapie Isaac did not play musical instruments as children.

Samian acquired a taste for rap and hip hop and developed his own musical styles by listening to original American rappers, and later French equivalents.

"I identify more with French rap from poor Paris suburbs… what’s happening there is reminiscent of goings-on on reserves here," said Samian, a fan of French rappers Abd Al Malik, Kery James and Grand Corps Malade.

Taken from his mother and sisters at age eight, Samian was placed in a home with a Catholic priest, where he was no longer allowed to speak his native tongue.

Writing in Algonquin now is difficult for him. "I often ask my grandmother to help me, by telephone or through the Internet," he said.

For her part, Elisapie Isaac listened to a lot of jazz as a child growing up in the remote Arctic village of Salluit.

In 2001, she produced her first album "Taima." It recounts with slow melodies and lyrics in both French and Inuktitut — the language of Canada’s far northern aboriginals — the once nomadic life of Inuit with a modern musical edge.

Her latest work "There will be stars," released in September, is a return to the jazz music she so adored as a child, but with a hint of violins, guitars, drums and synthesizers to spice it up.

"Inuit would never hear such forms of wordplay (in music). It’s a bit scary," she said. "I create super carnal and sensual love songs, but Inuit women never actually speak like that."

The emergence of these artists "is sure to bolster pride in First Nations and will encourage many to learn or to speak their native language," said Andre Dudemaine.

There are more than 1.3 million aboriginals in Canada, out of the country’s total population of 33 million.

Their music would have an even greater impact if only radio stations played their songs, Dudemaine noted. It would be helpful too if their albums did not always end up in the "world music" section in the record stores.