Decades later, spotlight shines on Cree artist Lloyd Cheechoo

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When recording the half-finished song “James Bay,” Lloyd Cheechoo didn’t realize that it would become his signature piece. Even more surprising is that it took nearly 40 years for it to garner mainstream recognition. The incomplete song was recorded, essentially, on a whim and first appeared on the compilation album, Goose Wings (The Music of James Bay). The sound engineer for the album Mel Stewart had space for one more song and asked Cheechoo, who had just finished recording Winds of Change, if he had anything else.

Lloyd Cheechoo

“I told him I had started writing a new song, and Mel said, ‘Let’s hear it,’” Cheechoo told the Nation. “I had one verse at the time so I played it for him and he liked it. He said, ‘I’m going for lunch, write another verse.’ So I did and he comes back from lunch and says, ‘That’ll do. You come with the powwow beat and I’ll add the bassline.’”

And though the song was recorded in the 1970s and released in 1981, it found new life in 2014 when it re-released on the compilation album Native North America (Vol 1): Aboriginal Folk, Rock, and Country 1966-1985.

Vancouver music historian and DJ Kevin “Sipreano” Howes curated the compilation that’s described as “an anthology of music that was once near-extinct and largely unheard but at its core, utterly revolutionary.” In 2016, Native North America (Vol 1) was nominated for the Best Historical Album Grammy.

This summer Cheechoo, along with Duke Redbird, Willie Thrasher, Linda Saddleback, Willy Mitchell, and Gordon Dick Sr., will be performing at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival under the banner, Native North America: A Gathering of Indigenous Trailblazers.

Cheechoo, a former executive director of the Cree Native Arts & Crafts Association, has spent most of his life as a musician. But the decades when Indigenous music was being overlooked weren’t easy for him or his contemporaries.

“Bittersweet is the word I’d use to describe the attention the song is getting now,” said Cheechoo. “Back then all of us were hitting our heads against the wall. We knew that Native music was not ‘in’ yet.”

Cheechoo’s original band – with him on drums, brother Elmer Cheechoo on bass, cousin Vern Cheechoo on guitar and vocals and Lawrence Martin on guitar and vocals – was called Vell’s Universe and has been a long-time Eeyou Istchee favourite.

“In 2009, the second coming of Vell’s Universe was invited to Wemindji for the 50th anniversary, minus Elmer who’s moved on to gospel music,” said Cheechoo. “We were supposed to have a 45-minutIMG_0316e set and we ended up playing for almost two hours. They let us play for that long because we’re like the Eagles, the Native Eagles, and everyone has their own album to play.”

And while Cheechoo’s bandmates – Lawrence Martin and Vern Cheechoo – have received several Aboriginal Music Juno nominations, the spotlight is something he’s still getting used to.

“When Kevin reached out to me, he was like my saviour, not so much for Lawrence and Vern. They’ve reached a level where they’re rubbing elbows with the biggies,” said Cheechoo. “But Vern and Laurence have said, ‘This is your time to shine, we’re going to be in the background.’”

Reached by phone in Vancouver, Howes expressed his gratitude for Cheechoo’s contributions to the album. “I have yet to meet Lloyd in person and I’m looking forward to having him out here on unceded Coast Salish territory,” said Howes. “I’m a massive fan of his work and it’s really resonated with me a lot even though I’m a non-Indigenous person.”

For now, Cheechoo is looking forward to his performance at the Vancouver folk fest. “James Bay wasn’t a finished song when I recorded it,” said Cheechoo. “When I perform it in Vancouver, they’re going to hear a finished song with a few more verses, and I’m proud of that little song that could.”

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