The Iskwew Singers take a modern approach

The trio imbues traditional First Nations music with some distinctly contemporary touches

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      You’d never guess that Ninikamawinân: Songs of Our People was made in a hurry, perhaps because at least one of the tunes the Iskwew Singers recorded for their debut is older than anyone knows. “Waniskâ”, a traditional Cree social song, has been sung for generations, and its presence on the new record is a nod toward the cultural heritage shared by all three Singers: Sandy Scofield, Andrea Menard, and Fara Palmer.

      There are at least a couple of other reasons why Ninikamawinân is so thoroughly enjoyable, one of them being that it was recorded in the relaxed environment of Bowen Island’s Stonehill Studios, with veteran tech Shael Wrinch at the controls. The other, though, is that Scofield, Menard, and Palmer discovered they had a unique vocal chemistry the moment they set foot on-stage together.

      “We sang in a big finale number for the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards in 2012, along with a number of other women,” explains Scofield, on the line from her Vancouver home. “And it was so much fun that we just reconnected again.

      “Out of that,” she continues, “I had a couple of Iskwew gigs, so I said, ‘Hey, why don’t you come and do these?’ And Fara said, ‘Well, it would be great if we had something to sell,’ so that was the birth of the CD.”

      For Scofield, however, the idea behind the Iskwew Singers dates back to 1995, when she was invited to the Banff Centre for the Arts to take part in a 10-week workshop led by the acclaimed Seneca vocalist Sadie Buck.

      “It was pretty much aimed at urban aboriginal women who did not grow up with their culture—and there’s a lot of people out there who have never set foot on their reserve or grew up with their culture in any way,” she explains. “Sadie brought in elders from all around Turtle Island, and they basically taught us not only some of their oral traditions—which involved teaching us some of their songs—but other things as well: their spiritual teachings and things like that.”

      Scofield was already well into a solo career as a singer-songwriter: she’s made four albums of original songs, and her band includes local hotshots Stephen Nikleva on guitar, Brian Minato on bass, and Randall Stoll on drums. She’s also sung jazz, and has studied electroacoustic composition with granular-synthesis pioneer Barry Truax, among others. So it’s not entirely surprising that while the Iskwew Singers’ focus is on what could be called “traditional” music, nine of Ninikamawinân’s dozen songs were written by members of the band, and their approach is decidedly contemporary.

      “Women didn’t drum, although we were the keepers of the drum,” Scofield notes, citing the now-defunct Ulali as the first women’s ensemble to break that convention. “And so some of the old people don’t like that, but times change, things evolve, and in the modern world there are a number of women’s drum groups out there. And when I say ‘drum groups’ I’m talking about hand drums, not the big powwow drums, although I’ve heard of a couple of them floating around out there in Indian country, too.

      “It’s a kind of contemporarized traditional music,” she continues. “Historically, there weren’t harmonies, only unisons and octaves. So we threw in all the harmonies—and that, I guess, puts it into the realm of bordering on folk music. But both Andrea and Fara are spectacular singers, as you can hear, so I think it’s a nice little combination, the blending of voices.”

      Scofield’s being modest: her own vocal contributions, especially on the spine-tingling “Strong Woman”, are equally gripping. And when the three sing together, their collective joy and pride is magical. They’re all strong women, and powerful ambassadors for First Nations culture.

      “We believe these songs come through us from our ancestors,” says Scofield. “And all of these songs have stories to them, so when we perform we discuss the stories, and we talk about some fundamental teachings—things like respect for life, respect for the Earth, respect for those who have come before us and those who are coming after us.”

      The result, she hopes, will be “a bridge of understanding” between First Nations people and their settler peers. And what better way to build that connection than through music?