The way Willie Thrasher tells the story, it took an almost mystical intervention to save him from a life of playing Top 40 covers with Inuvik’s first rock ’n’ roll band, the Cordells. And although the Inuit songwriter has suffered the occasional lull in his 40-year career, he’s still following the path shown him when he was in his teens.
“I remember one night when the Cordells were playing,” he recalls by phone from the Nanaimo waterfront, where he’s taking a few minutes off from his regular Saturday-afternoon busking stint. “We were sitting down during our 15-minute break, and then an old man came out of nowhere. I didn’t know who he was or where he came from, but he sat down at our table and then he asked us, ‘Why don’t you write Inuit music, Native music?’
“None of us knew about Inuit music at the time, ’cause we were raised up through residential school,” Thrasher continues. “But this old man that I’d never met before started giving us encouragement to write music that way. So I got very curious, and then I started writing stories and music about our culture.”
This was in the early 1970s, and what Thrasher didn’t realize at the time was that he was getting in on the start of a movement that effectively renewed First Nations pride all across Canada. Along with peers such as the Cree musician Lloyd Cheechoo and the Mi’kmaq singer and filmmaker Willie Dunn, Thrasher was among the first aboriginal musicians to address Native issues via the singer-songwriter genre—a task since taken up by artists such as Ontario hip-hop act A Tribe Called Red and Inuit avant-gardist Tanya Tagaq. And it now looks like their work is going to see a renaissance, thanks to a new Light in the Attic compilation named Native North America, Vol. 1.
Set for release on November 25, the double–CD collection was lovingly assembled by Vancouver resident Kevin “Sipreano” Howes, and contains 34 startlingly fresh-sounding tracks, including Thrasher’s “Old Man Carver” and “We Got to Take You Higher”.
For Howes, who was also responsible for Light in the Attic’s acclaimed Jamaica to Toronto collection of reggae and soul tunes, Native North America is yet another chance to explore unknown cultural treasures from Canada’s recent past.
“We know Gordon Lightfoot, we know the Guess Who, we know Anne Murray: they’ve been canonized, and rightfully so,” the DJ and audio curator tells the Straight in a separate telephone interview. “But there’s so much more to Canadian music than those artists, and we will lose this history if it’s not preserved to some degree right now. The reissues can help in that process, and for me it’s a great learning experience. I mean, I almost feel like I just put myself through a master’s degree in aboriginal studies. I’m not just looking for old records; I’m looking for books, literature. I go into archives, I go into libraries, I talk to the artists.…I really immerse myself in these projects, so at this point I know the importance and the impact these projects can have.”
Howes has a number of aspirations for Native North America, Vol. 1. First off, he feels that he’s compiled a record that still sounds contemporary, one that addresses issues that remain pressing today. (Listen to Dunn’s fierce and sorrowful “I Pity the Country” for proof of that.) With 13 of the compilation’s tracks having been pulled from CBC archives, he hopes our national broadcaster will wake up to the wealth of historical music now buried in its vaults. Most of all, he hopes that the record’s release will bring some long-overdue recognition to those artists still alive to enjoy it—and should that come to pass, Thrasher says he’s ready.
“Even though it was a really hard life, writing aboriginal music and getting it on the air and competing against the best of the best, we weren’t thinking of it that way,” the Inuit musician reports. “We were thinking of it only as a way to feel good inside, and remember what the elders passed on to us. It made me stronger, and today I’m a better writer than I ever was. I have a stronger voice, and a better understanding of who I am and where I come from.”
Proof of that, Thrasher adds, will be heard on his next CD, which is currently in production—but for now he’s more than happy to have his roots rediscovered, thanks to Howes’s careful digging.