M’Girl infuses Indigenous Themes with “Western” Vocal Harmonies

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      There’s a singularly surprising moment in the video for M’Girl’s song “Eyes Wide Open.” You see black and white footage of First Nations children, dressed like 1950’s schoolkids, sitting at tiny desks, and immediately presume you’re looking at footage of residential school children in the process of having their culture and language stolen from them.

      Then the camera pans right, and the teacher turns out to be a First Nations woman.  Which changes everything, and kind of catches you by the heart.

      The director of “Eyes Wide Open,” and leader of M’Girl, is Renae Morriseau. She explains that the author of the song, Sheila Maracle—a former member of the band, now a mother living in her home community of 6 Nations in Ontario—is also a teacher. “Her personal story—as it is for many of us Indigenous peeps—includes experience with residential schools.”  

      Morriseau’s background is “Cree (nehiyawi) and Saulteaux (nahkawiniw)”—she interchanges between how she describes herself, depending on the context. In terms of First Nations musical influences and inspirations, Morriseau namechecks both Pura Fe— with whom she once gifted in Banff “for her contributions to the world of storytelling and song”—and Carleigh Cardinal, who recently played the Vancouver Folk Fest, and whom Morriseau describes as “fabulous.”

      I’ve caught M’Girl once previously, at a VCC event, in trio form. During that performance, I’d initially been reminded of other times when I’ve seen First Nations music performed in public ceremonies. With chanted vocals in a language I didn’t understand over a steady drumbeat, my first impression—as someone with little interaction with First Nations people, and almost no knowledge of their musical traditions—was of the foreignness of the song. 

      Listening again, however, I realized that the harmonies are actually not all that different, for instance, from some of the vocal stylings used by Alison Krauss in one of her better known songs;  so suddenly I’m wondering if M’Girl sees themselves playing Cree music with a ‘western” influence, shall we say, or western music with a Cree influence, or a combination thereof?

      “We are all colonized,” Morriseau responds. “Sure, one of the gifts the colonizers gave us is harmonies. In PowWow songs, we have the melody (usually done by men) and an octave (usually done by women). And as I understand it, we’ve been doing that for a long time. This I grew up with,” she says.

      At the same time, “I’m colonized and so are you. We are all adapting to the forces around us.” She adds that she hopes issues like climate change are going to bring us together.

      “We are in a time of change when it comes to Canadians understanding not only the history of Turtle Island, but perhaps in their own family,” she observes.

      At present, Morriseau is curating an event for the Heart of the City Festival called “Home, Homelessness and the Culture In-Between,” which will run from October 31 to November 6. Morriseau also wrote and directed a play about “reconciliation between an Indigenous father and his daughter,” called Weaving Reconciliation Our Way. 

      As for M’Girl—whose name comes from “a term of endearment our elders would say all through my growing up years,” Morriseau explains. You can see the band live this Saturday at the East Van Opry, where they’ll be sharing the stage with everyone from Kitty and the Rooster to Ana Bon Bon, as well as Opry regulars like Jimmy Roy and event organizer Kathleen Nisbet.

      Nisbet—herself Métis, on her Mom’s side—tells the Straight that the Opry has hosted several First Nations artists over the years, including the Louis Riel Métis dancers (twice), Madelaine McCallum, JJ Lavallee, Fagan Furlong, and Kim Beggs. "We’ve done a lot of Métis music because that’s what I’m involved with and the Métis fiddle music tends to fit right in with the loosely ‘country’ style of the opry. M’Girl has more of a contemporary gospel style, which I think will fit right in too.”

      More information on the East Van Opry 2019 here.