Cree artists climbing up the charts

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As all of Eeyou Istchee prepares for a productive Goose Break, Adrian Sutherland and the guys from Midnight Shine are packing their gear for a different rite of passage. This marks the second year in a row for the band at Canadian Music Week (April 18-23) in Toronto. And after a winter spent mostly apart, it’s all about honing their craft.

“We feel good about our live act, but there’s always room for improvement. So we’ll be playing our new single Sister Love, but other than that, focus on our catalogue of songs from the first two albums,” said Sutherland. “We’re going to use this time on stage to work on tightening up, transitioning from song to song, stage banter, stuff like that.”

And while the band’s near future will feature Canadian Music Week, the Ottawa Bluesfest (in July, when they’ll share the closing day stage with music legend Tom Petty), and a show in Vancouver, the past few weeks have already been busy for Sutherland. He recently participated in the JUNO Cup (March 31), an event that brings together former NHL-ers and a who’s who of Canadian musicians to compete in the name of charity.

“I never thought my music journey would take me to a hockey game,” joked Sutherland. “It was pretty fun, but I had to show them how we play up in James Bay.”

Adrien and Judy Sutherland at their family campAdrian Sutherland - hockey 3

But once the JUNO Cup experience was behind him, Sutherland was eager to get back on the land. As soon as he returned home, he and his son made two weeklong fishing excursions by snowmobile. This has become a ritual for Sutherland, a way to process the craziness of the music biz.

“It’s so humbling to get out there on the land. It keeps me grounded and tells me where I come from,” he said. “Last year, after our performance at the Ottawa Folk Fest, the first thing I did when I got home was pack up my gear, and my son and I went out for a week on the land.”

He plans to doing the same following Canadian Music Week. “On May 10 my son and I are going by bush plane into camp to catch the snow-goose migration.”

Sutherland’s connection to the land made the decision to forego this year’s Goose Break a difficult one.

“Sacrificing Goose Break for the music stuff wasn’t easy because it’s so important for me to continue that Cree legacy I was brought up with,” Sutherland said. “I just want to wish everybody in James Bay a fruitful hunt. That’s what it’s all about. Getting out there on the land and practicing our traditions and values with our families.”

The band Midnight Shine poses for photos outside of Coalition Music in Toronto on Wednesday, May 04, 2016. The band is compromised of musicians from Northern Ontario First Nations Communities, left to right, bassist Stan Louttit from Moose Factory, drummer George Gillies from Fort Albany, lead singer Adrian Sutherland from Attawapiskat, and lead guitar Zach Tomatuk from Moose Factory.   THE CANADIAN PRESS/Aaron Vincent Elkaim

Photo by Aaron Vincent Elkaim

Thelma Cheechoo celebrates the soundwaves during Goose Break

Moose Factory recording artist Thelma Cheechoo remembers hearing the hum of radios in the wilderness during Goose Break. “They’d always take the radios out with them into the bush and music was always playing,” said Cheechoo. “Radio is still a huge thing for people in remote and rural communities.”

She credits her large musical family and her creative connection with Jimmy Rankin of the Rankin Family for her career in music.

“My mom and dad and siblings all played multiple instruments, so there was always music around and it became second nature to me,” Cheechoo told The Nation. “When I was working on my last album I met Jimmy Rankin and we started connecting over our big families and how they played fiddle and guitars.”

Cheechoo recently finished doing a show with Rankin in Yellowknife and has a busy summer tour schedule ahead. She’ll be playing music in communities across the Northwest Territories, Nunavut and Yukon and plans on doing the pre-production for a new album in her spare time.


Cheechoo’s last album, Stay, was recorded in 2014 and nominated for an Indigenous Music Award. Unfortunately, a sickness in the family took her away from music for a period, but she plans to have a new album ready by 2018. She’s also interested in giving back to her community in the form of workshops and a tour around Eeyou Istchee that may feature some famous faces.

“There’s so much musical talent in the communities in James Bay, and people are always coming up to me and asking me questions about how to make music a career,” said Cheechoo. “I always tell them to get out there and play shows and find their own voice through writing their own songs. But it’s also important to network and learn the business side of things.”

Even with her busy schedule, she still had time to reminisce. “During Goose Break, there’s so much excitement. Nobody is in the communities, everybody is out on the land, and it’s a time for families to really connect,” Cheechoo recalled. “My grandma was a really good hunter, and she taught her granddaughters how to hunt. I still think of those summers I spent out on the land with my family all the time.”

Cheecho believes community radio is one the most important facets of remote and rural living.

“You’ll hear things on the radio like, ‘If you see so and so, send them home.’ When I lived in Rankin Inlet in Nunavut, I noticed they did that there too,” Cheechoo said with a laugh. “Small community radio is so important, and I remind people who are trying to get into music that they still play indie artists. That’s how unsigned artists like me are able to get our music out there on the land.”

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