One of the more intriguing aspects of this year’s TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival is the larger-than-usual number of Indigenous artists who’ve been invited to perform—which means that an assortment of First Nations languages will be heard on festival stages.
That’s important, both for the performers—who are often rediscovering their own languages within the context of a larger reclamation of identity and power—and for settler listeners, who might need to be reminded of Indigenous culture’s enduring strength.
Songwriter Elisapie Isaac, who hails from the far north of Quebec, rediscovered the power of singing in her native tongue after releasing The Ballad of the Runaway Girl last year. The semiautobiographical album was primarily an act of personal recovery for the Inuk singer-songwriter, who began work on it after a particularly devastating spell of postpartum depression. Music cured her blues, she says, and on a recent return to the Arctic she found further evidence of its power.
“My English and French songs are there for everybody, and my Inuktitut songs are always directed through the window I see from—and I see the North,” the trilingual artist explains in a telephone interview from her Montreal home. “I feel it’s really important to have that communication with the North, and the Inuit, and especially the kids.”
Lil’wat singer and composer Russell Wallace, the jazz festival’s Indigenous artist in residence, is pursuing a different path of education and reclamation with the Tillicum Shantie Project, his collaboration with guitarist Tony Wilson and other local jazz performers.
In the West Coast trading language called Chinook, Wallace explains in a separate telephone interview, “Tillicum means ‘the people’, and shantie is like ‘music’ or ‘song’. So for me Tillicum Shantie is like ‘Song of the People’.”
Among the pioneering artists whose heritage the band will explore are Kaw-Muscogee saxophonist Jim Pepper and Salish jazz singer Mildred Bailey, but Wallace will also contribute songs in St’át’imcets, some from his late mother’s repertoire and some composed by him.
“Since I’m not fluent in the language, I try to use whatever little language I do know and incorporate that into the songs,” he says. “I mean, even things as simple as counting to five. I wrote a Salish counting song, and so it’s what I know, but also I’m thinking of giving access to this language to other people.
“Our language has been labelled as one of the languages that will go extinct in the next 50 years,” he adds, “so it’s really kind of now or never.”
The Eastern Medicine Singers, from Rhode Island, don’t always sing in Massachuset and Wampanoag dialect, often preferring to use evocative but untranslatable vocables instead. Still, the meaning of their music is clear: it’s about community, about endurance, about shared purpose, and it’s had a transformative effect on Israeli guitarist Yonatan Gat, who first encountered the singers at Austin’s SXSW festival and will join them for a free, outdoor jazz-festival show.
“One of the things that they’ve taught me is that the music really sounds like the intention of the music,” Gat explains in an interview from New York. “In western culture we’ve become very… almost manipulative, sometimes, in terms of what we’re trying to achieve. You’ve got a project, and you’re trying to achieve something, and you’re trying to make the audience feel a certain way or to present yourself in a certain way. With the Eastern Medicine Singers, music and the way they socialize are just really, really ingrained together—and I think that’s really wonderful.”
Working with the Singers, says Gat, has required him to rethink his own views on music and community, and the Indigenous artists coming to the jazz festival might well have the same effect on their settler listeners. At the very least, we’re sure to encounter music that will command respect for its strength and beauty, even if we don’t understand the words.
“Yeah!” says Elisapie. “And why not? It’s like, ‘Finally!’ We’ve been colonized and forced into so many things, so why not hear a song that you don’t really understand because it’s in a First Peoples language? And it’s okay.”