Quique Escamilla brings songs for Indigenous rights to Talking Stick Festival

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      Before he began fusing Mexican ranchera and huapango with sunbaked reggae and crossroads blues, Quique Escamilla was enamoured with hard rock and classic metal. While politics and music rarely mix in those genres, that wasn’t the case in the bands the singer-guitarist played with in the Mexican state of Chiapas.

      “Looking back, I realize we didn’t always understand what we were talking about,” he reminisces with a laugh, on the line from his adopted home of Toronto. “But when I was a teenager, we wrote metal songs that talked about the government and how shitty it was.”

      That would in some ways prepare Escamilla for a way of thinking and challenging the status quo that continues to inform who he is today. A Juno-winning musician, he’s released two full lengths—500 Years of Night (2014) and Encomienda (2019)—that are as musically uplifting as they are lyrically progressive and occasionally politicized. Consider the title Encomienda, which references a Spanish colonial system where conquered communities were designated as free labour.

      When the singer first arrived on this side of the border to stay with relatives in Edmonton, he noticed similarities between the ways that Indigenous communities are treated in Canada and in Mexico. At home he was used to seeing patterns of segregation, exclusion, and marginalization. What he saw in Canada came as a shock because of historical parallels.

      “It was the same,” he says bluntly. “I never imagined that would be the case. In Mexico we don’t talk about Canada. We know about the U.S. because of its influence, and what’s going on there, but people don’t know anything about Canada. Living in Alberta I had my first contact with Native communities that I went to visit. They talked to me about their history, and I talked to them about my history in Mexico. I wasn’t offended, but I was surprised about how little they knew about the roots of people like the Southern Mayan and what they’ve faced.”

      Escamilla notes, for example, that Chiapas has historically been home to people who’ve spoken 12 different regional dialects, with colonization doing massive harm.

      “All around Chiapas, in any city, you can find Indigenous people who are still speaking their own native languages,” he says. “And you’ve also had people who’ve made fun of people who speak other languages, and who’ve come up with terrible jokes and derogatory names for them.”

      At the same time he also sees progress in the way that Indigenous communities are being treated today, with Canada playing a leading role.

      “There’s a lot of noise right now, which is good,” Escamilla says. “It’s good that conversations are being had at different levels, including at an international level. Canada is taking the lead among all the nations on the continent as the leading voice on Indigenous movements—it’s amplifying the voice of Indigenous people through things like art. That’s one of the things that makes me happy to be living in Canada.”

      Singing in both English and Spanish, Escamilla is also helping move the dialogue forward, whether it’s focusing on Canada’s notorious Highway of Tears on Encomienda, or looking at the lineage of Mexico’s Indigenous communities on 500 Years of Night.

      “You have to understand the origins of where you come from,” he says. “In my case, people have been in that part of Mexico for thousands of years. There’s an appreciation, and an under-appreciation, of what that represents. And that’s one of the main reasons that I chose to do music: not just as an expression of my feelings, but instead trying to be more purposeful.

      “I’m hoping that I instill a perspective in listeners that maybe they haven’t thought of before,” he continues. “I know that a song can’t always change things physically right away, but I also know the power of knowledge, of sharing. That’s something that can be fruitful as we move towards the future.”

      Quique Escamilla plays the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre on Saturday (February 22) as part of the Talking Stick Festival.