Cris Derksen’s Orchestral Powwow CD is so unusual, so satisfying, and at times so unexpectedly thrilling, it’s easy to overlook the coded message buried deep within its grooves. So easy, in fact, that this listener needed a little nudge from the half-Cree, half-Mennonite cellist and composer in order to catch on.
The basic recipe behind Orchestral Powwow is simple enough: it’s essentially a meeting between First Nations powwow groups Northern Voice, Black Bear, and the Chippewa Travellers and a small chamber orchestra led by UBC music grad Derksen. And, on first hearing, it seems like an equal partnership, with earthy native chanting and drumming beautifully enveloped by swirling melodic lines for strings and horns. It’s clear that Derksen’s compositions grew out of her source material—either newly commissioned recordings by the Chippewa Travellers, members of the Nawash First Nation from Ontario’s Georgian Bay region, or extant field recordings from the others—and she confirms that her method involved paying careful attention to those digital files while improvising along with her cello.
“I didn’t sit down to any of those pieces of music with anything in mind,” the former Vancouverite explains, on the line from her Toronto home. “I’d just sit down with my cello and try and find chords that would work.”
She’d then take those cello parts and extrapolate on them at her computer, using Logic software to develop arrangements that draw on powwow rhythms but that are sometimes, harmonically, at odds with that source material. Most powwow music, she notes, is in G minor, while classical music generally explores wider harmonic terrain; combining the two approaches leads to a kind of delicious tension that speaks explicitly to Derksen’s mixed heritage—and to being a two-spirited woman in a primarily heterosexual world.
“There’s beauty in that tension, for sure,” she says. “And there’s beauty in, like, colonization and decolonization. That tension is how we all function in the world.”
But when it came time to make Orchestral Powwow with live orchestral musicians, Derksen discovered that she’d also created a template for the kind of world she hopes to live in—one in which indigenous people are not only heard, seen, and valued, but given a leading role.
“We have to follow the beat of the powwow drums, so we have to follow the indigenous heartbeat first,” she says. “This involves an intense amount of listening from the European players—which is also an allegory for what should happen, what needs to happen! A huge amount of listening and following: that’s the goal!”
While Orchestral Powwow was originally intended as a one-off studio project, it’s since taken on a life of its own on stages across the country. This, naturally, poses some challenges. For the bandleader, these are primarily logistical: generally, she tours with the Chippewa Travellers, hoop dancer Nimkii Osawamick, and percussionist Jesse Baird, and picks up string and horn players for each show. For the audiences, aesthetic concerns can sometimes be daunting. “It’s a little more challenging for the powwow audience in general, as classical music isn’t really part of their language,” Derksen admits. “But the folks that are involved, they totally love it!”
And the rewards, she adds, are huge.
“Taking the Chippewa Travellers to the Vancouver Island MusicFest, it was the first time some of them had been on a plane, and it was the first time they had seen the ocean, the real ocean,” Derksen enthuses. “They were the happiest kids, and it’s fun to work with folks that aren’t jaded about the music industry yet.
“Really, I had no intentions of touring it, just because it’s so large,” she adds, laughing. “But here we are, which is awesome!”
Cris Derksen presents Orchestral Powwow in a free concert at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre on Saturday (June 24), as part of the Queer Arts Festival.