The first Native North America Gathering at Trinity St. Paul's last night (August 8) proved that the spirit of the land — and the spirit of Indigenous voices — can be heard and felt in the heart of downtown Toronto, even as sirens wail by on Bloor Street (sometimes in key).
Hosted by Brian Wright-McLeod (author of The Encyclopedia of Native Music), who was introduced by CBC Radio's Jarrett Martineau (host of Reclaimed), the gathering was part of a traveling celebration of Light in the Attic's remarkable Native North America Vol. One compilation, which brought to light long-out-of-print music by Indigenous folk, rock and country artists living in Canada and the northern U.S. and took curator Kevin Howes well over a decade to research and compile. The album, which came out in 2014, is currently out of stock and awaiting a repressing.
Without trying to replicate the compilation — that would have been impossible, as some of the artists have passed away or are unable to travel — the gathering brought together a number of the musicians on the record to share new work and covers along with some of the forgotten (now remembered) gems from Native North America. Willie Dunn, who passed away in 2013 and whose family was present, was represented by a screening of his 1968 NFB short Ballad of Crowfoot, still a devastatingly poignant 10-minute primer in song on the atrocities Indigenous peoples have faced here in Canada. Before that, Duke Redbird (who collaborated with Shingoose on the record) read a series of interconnected poems jumping backwards and forwards in time that demonstrated the ongoing connection between milestone events in Native history and his own life journey.
The beauty of the venue became more apparent when John Angaiak, from Nightmute, Alaska, took the microphone for a short set that included Native North America cut "I'll Rock You to the Rhythm of the Ocean," his high notes ringing out softly over his gentle rhythm guitar playing. Ernest Monias ("King of the North") introduced some country and rock'n'roll to the night, with "The Image of Me" and "Jesus on the Mainline."
The trio of Vern Cheechoo, Lloyd Cheechoo and Lawrence Martin, the veritable "supergroup" of the evening, performed a set that was initially a bit funny and endearing as Lloyd, who is usually the drummer, had trouble plugging in his guitar before singing "Winds of Change" and "James Bay" off the compilation. Eventually, Martin handed him another one, but the trio became more powerful when Vern and Martin handled vocals and guitar as Lloyd provided thunderstorm-like percussion.
As sets became shorter and time was running out, Eric Landry, from Sudbury, told a beautiful story about hundreds of loons gathering together to sing on a lake, before playing instrumental "Loon Lake." Leland Bell (also a renowned visual artist) and Willie Mitchell (with a 12-string and harmonics) played short sets before Willie Thrasher, dressed like a space cowboy hippie with percussionist Linda Saddleback at his side, strummed us into the night with his incredibly high-octane songs, including a new song, "Sacred Fire of Peace."
The gathering was significant and felt special, a rare and long overdue opportunity for fans to see these geographically far-flung elder Indigenous musicians in person. It also marked a whole-hearted embracing of what Wright-McLeod called "the true folk music of the land" by members of the Toronto music community, including members of Barenaked Ladies, the Sadies and Jennifer Castle, the latter of whom Thrasher thanked for bringing flowers.