Native Artists Willie Thrasher and Willy Mitchell perform in Montreal

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“Hey John! You’re already home! Up here on this stage!”

Inuit folksinger Willie Thrasher was shouting between verses of “Eskimo Named Johnny,” a song he wrote a lifetime ago in the 1970s, when he’d just finished surviving residential school and was living in Ottawa a long way from anyone he knew. Back then music was his only friend.

That changed long ago. At the Sala Rossa in Montreal June 5, there were 200 people clapping and stomping their feet while they sang along with him and partner Linda Saddleback. Thrasher, like Johnny, really was home up on that stage.

Thrasher was part of a two-night showcase following the enormous success of the Native North America Vol. 1 compilation album, which brought the regional Indigenous music of the 1960s and 1970s to a huge international audience. It also garnered nominations in Canada’s Polaris Prize and the American Grammy Awards for Best Historical Album.

Kevin James Howes, the DJ and record collector who assembled the compilation and contacted all the original musicians for their permission, was also in attendance. He soaked in the atmosphere of yet another crowd going crazy for Thrasher.

“What was once regional is now digital, so the music has actually been able to go around the world,” he said. “We were getting love from England, Germany, Japan, all over the United States. It was overwhelming to get that feedback.”

Of the Grammy nomination Howes said, “To see these artists recognized on that platform was incredible, even though the work that I do is always a labour of love and never had anything to do with getting awards. Though it didn’t win, the recognition for the artists was staggering.”

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Inuit artist Willie Thrasher (photo by Wayne William Archibald)

Working with record label Light in the Attic, which released Native North America Vol. 1, Howes also reissued Thrasher’s 1981 album Spirit Child. More recently, he reissued Yup’ik singer John Angaiak’s I’m Lost in the City and Mistissini legend Morley Loon’s Northland, My Land. He’s passionate about lost music, and especially passionate about Indigenous music that never received the wide audience he feels it deserved.

“Through that process travelling across the country looking for vinyl records for DJing and historical work, you start learning about Willie Dunn, Shingoose, Sugluk, Morley Loon and you fall in love and want to learn more,” Howes recounted. “In my case it was related to my upbringing, and the history of Canada and its brutal past. One thing I’m very excited about is the Indigenization of the school curriculum across Canada. It’s an important part of our collective cultural fabric.”

The following night, Mistissini’s Willy Mitchell headlined a concert across the street at the Casa Del Popolo. They’d booked him into a smaller room, which seemed to be a mistake, since all the tables were removed to accommodate the crowd that turned out to hear Mitchell sing classics like “Call of the Moose” and “Birch Bark Letter.”

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Willy Mitchell performing at Casa del Popolo (photo by Wayne William Archibald)

Mitchell has had more than his share of difficult encounters with Canada’s brutal past. Even being born was a trial for him, after his Algonquin and Mohawk parents were turned away from a hospital in Cornwall while his mother was in labour. Raised in Kitigan-Zibi, he was shot in the head by a police officer in 1969 during a dispute over Christmas lights. As he recalled after the show, white police in Native communities had very itchy trigger fingers in those days. The resulting payout from the shooting gave Mitchell enough money to buy a Fender Telecaster, a guitar he still owns and which he broke out onstage on June 6.

The change since the release of Native North America has been a big one, Mitchell agreed. “Just the royalties alone, they really blew up,” he enthused. “I like that part! It hasn’t been since 1993 that I’ve cut a record. All my recordings are like that – 10 years apart or more. I’m a slow writer. My songs contain a lot of topics at the same time. People are listening to one line after another and thinking about everything I’m saying as I’m piling it up. Especially for the people who’ve never heard me before, the lyrics are new. I can see their faces react to certain lines – they’re quiet, and that means they’re liking what they’re hearing if they’re quiet.”

The room wasn’t quiet while he played, however. There was a certain contingent of rowdy fans that had come down from Mistissini. They seemed to be getting to Mitchell, who said later that they “brought all the negativity from Mistissini down here to come and bug my ass.”

But he and his band played through their set list. And when the cheering crowd demanded an encore, they ad-libbed their way through a blues song and closed the show with a cover of “House of the Rising Sun,” with the crowd providing back-up singing.

Though Mitchell feels the popularity of Christianity in the Cree communities prevented the growth of traditional ceremonies and practices for many years, he’s glad to see the expanding culture around powwows in Mistissini and other Cree communities.

“It got to a point where people were afraid of the drum,” he said. “They forbid their kids to touch it – they kept it in a glass case for years. And it’s still in a glass case, but it’s slowly coming out. Now they have a powwow in Mistissini, and it’s very encouraging to see that. The kids love it, working on their regalia all winter, and they dance all summer. They have two powwows. I don’t know how the Christian people are taking it. They’re slowly loosening up and supporting their kids in doing powwow.”

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At both Thrasher’s and Mitchell’s shows, the audience varied wildly, from young people to Elders, from gentle-natured music fans to punk-rockers. Howes credits the continuing value of the music for drawing so many different people together.

“It’s nice to see such a wide range of people coming together and celebrating the music, and learning from each other,” he said. “That’s the power of music – it brings people together. I’m honoured I could play a small part in helping to facilitate that.”

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