Manuan Lafond caught the blues on the JBH and wrote a song about it – in Cree

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Manuan Lafond is quite familiar with the bump and grind of the James Bay Highway. He’s dodged plenty of potholes and made countless trips from his current home in Gatineau back to the Cree Nation. Now that he’s studying at Algonquin College he makes frequent trips back to home community of Chisasibi and elsewhere in Eeyou Istchee, sometimes to visit family and sometimes to get other Indigenous musicians to live shows and music festivals up north.

The treacherous highway familiar to many Eeyouch inspired Lafond to write his own Cree blues song, a stark contrast to his previous musical work as a rapper. He and up-and-coming filmmaker Paul Paccini travelled over 3000 kms to shoot a music video for his ode to Chisasibi – a track called James Bay Highway Blues.

“This is my third music video,” he told the Nation, “but the other ones I didn’t promote as well as I did this one. Now that I’m taking Music Industry Arts [at Algonquin College], I’m more aware of how to promote and market my music.”

“It all started when I was finishing up school as a returning student,” Lafond said. “I went to Walmart and bought a CD – Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Greatest Hits. I actually bought it for a friend but I ended up opening it. I didn’t have any satellite radio or anything, so I listened to that CD the whole way home [from Chisasibi to Gatineau].

“Somewhere in the middle of the road, I stopped the car and started singing. Stevie was doing the guitar solos and I was trying to sing, to mimic his style – Texas blues. And then I came up with my own lyrics and that’s when I got the idea to sing about the Chisasibi road in a blues style.”

The journey documented in the music video is more than a way of raising awareness to the poor condition of the highway, or cracking a joke at Quebec’s lack of proper road maintenance up north. Days before the video was filmed, Lafond lost his mother, Pamela House, after her battle with cancer.

“She always was singing around the house,” Lafond reminisced. “She always loved to sing. I was rapping, in the basement, working construction for five years and doing odd jobs here and there [before going back to school].

“Sometimes she would ask, ‘How come you don’t sing?’ and I would say, ‘I’m a rapper, I don’t sing.’

“It would be so great if she could hear the song herself. I know in spirit she knows I’m doing what I love to do and that’s singing now. I’m not sure if she thought I would actually come this far [with my music career], but now I’m making things happen and I’m investing in myself.”

Funded by a grant from the Cree Nation of Chisasibi, the video for James Bay Highway Blues is available on iTunes and YouTube. Sung mostly in Cree, the song is a blend of blues with hints of hip hop that Lafond says is its own Cree style of music. He wants to make Native music for Native people, Cree people most of all.

“This song is dedicated to Chisasibi, first and foremost,” Lafond explained. “Everyone talks about this road, how long and shitty it is, full of potholes. I had to find something that described that.

“The James Bay Highway is something that I knew people would relate to and it took me a year to write it. It took me about a month to find the right melody and the lyrics kept on changing. I had to make sure it was good, and it turned out. You feel the blues in there.

As he continues his program at Algonquin, networks with other Indigenous artists and make music, Lafond is making progress towards achieving his dream of making a living as a musician. He is also collaborating with other Eeyouch who have already embarked on the long road to musical success. He signed with an independent record label in Ottawa called PaulStar Entertainment that is owned and operated by Paul Napash of Chisasibi – who also studied Music Industry Arts at Algonquin.

“I’ve been kind of following in his footsteps,” said Lafond. “He’s awesome, he’s a producer and engineer and I’m his artist. I get recording time at his studio, at his own place.”

Lafond is also good friends with artist manager Steve Einish, who works with Violent Ground, a hip-hop duo out of Kawawachikamach, in the Naskapi Nation. He was also responsible for introducing Lafond to Paul Paccini who shot the James Bay Highway Blues video.

Lafond hopes to continue the spirit of Indigenous musical collaboration within the Cree Nation by travelling to music festivals and performing at events throughout Eeyou Istchee – perhaps at one point even sharing the stage with a certain band from his hometown.

“I would love to play this song with the famous Fort George Rockers, with a full band,” he exclaimed. “Dale [House], he’s my Mom’s first cousin. I would love to perform James Bay Highway Blues with the Fort George Rockers, that would be great!”

As far as musical and monetary success goes, Lafond isn’t too worried about immediate recognition or a quick paycheque, he’s in it for the long haul.

“It’s all about dedication and discipline,” he said. “It’s not about getting paid right away, it’s about making music and getting gigs for now. I’m making Indigenous music, and that’s my focus.”

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