TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival: Diverse mix diva DJ Kookum triumphs against all odds
Growing up off and on a reserve in Alberta, she found solace and inspiration in music
When Vancouver’s DJ Kookum sways to the beats that she creates at this year’s TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival, she’ll know that she’s in a select company.
Not only is she female in a very male-dominated field at the turntable, but she’s also Indigenous—a Dene/Cree member of the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation who was raised on- and off-reserve in Cold Lake, Alberta.
“Kookum actually means Grandma in the Cree language,” Kookum, a.k.a. Cheyanna Kootenhayoo, told the Straight by phone. “People who don’t know that think it just means cooking beats, like ‘cook ’em up’. It works for me either way.”
She quickly added that she’s not a grandma—she’s far too young for that. But the name came when she was 13 years old after clowning around with a friend, talking like elders on the phone.
“I really tried to get people to stop calling me that and no one would,” Kookum recalled. “It stuck and eventually, I started responding to it.”
She said that sometimes people have been surprised when she’s showed up at gigs because they just assumed that DJ Kookum would be male.
But that’s increasingly less likely as her fame grows, thanks in part to her role as the DJ for the skyrocketing Snotty Nose Rez Kids, who appeared on the cover of last week’s Georgia Straight newspaper.
“Touring with the Snotty Nose Rez Kids had very exciting moments, for sure,” Kookum said. “Because we went to Australia and Mexico and the Netherlands and England—and we played in all those places.
“I remember when we were in Mexico and I was deejaying my own set on this rooftop. I thought ‘this is so cool. I can’t believe this is happening.’ ”
She’s described as a “diverse mix diva” in her bio, which reflects her eclectic musical tastes. She brings everything from Cardi B to Drake to Calypso to other Latin American beats to John Fogerty’s “Bad Moon Rising" into her sets.
“I like to incorporate different eras and different styles or genres,” Kookum said. “So sometimes, you’ll hear a little bit of rock or oldies.”
She feels that her stage presence has improved after working as the DJ for the Snotty Nose Rez Kids over the past couple of years. In the beginning, Kookum would never approach the microphone, but that’s no longer the case.
In addition to her mastery of the soundboard and computer, Kookum is also an accomplished film editor—a skill she developed in the Indigenous independent filmmaking program at Capilano University.
She followed that up by enrolling in the electronic-music program at the Art Institute of Vancouver.
“When I edit a video, you can really see my music background in it because I’m cutting video to the beats,” she said.
Overcoming hard times
Kookum’s success is all the more astonishing when one considers what she faced in her teenage years in the Cold Lake area. She often went back and forth from the northeastern Alberta town to her nearby reserve.
That’s because her grandma married a non-Indigenous person, so she lost her status. She was forced to live in the town, which is home to a Canadian Armed Forces base, as a result of the discriminatory Indian Act.
“In Cold Lake growing up, there was so much racism happening,” Kookum stated. “It was really hard. I remember being called a ‘squaw’ just walking down the street. I don’t experience that now.”
When Kookum was on the reserve among her own people, she didn’t feel like she had any role models so she immersed herself in music.
“I wanted to be a rapper,” Kookum revealed. “But I was too shy. I couldn’t do it.”
The effects of residential schools—and the intergenerational trauma that they inflicted—were all around her, including in her own mother, who struggled to raise the family. But because her mom had a computer, Kookum was able to burn CDs for her friends. And her mother’s love of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s music also rubbed off on her.
“There’s definitely some Buffy Sainte-Marie songs that bring me back to my childhood, for sure,” Kookum said.
In her teenage years, Kookum was also influenced by rising international electronic-music stars like Tiësto, David Guetta, and Benny Benassi. Edmonton’s no-nonsense Erin Eden might have been the first female DJ that she ever saw.
“That was probably 15 years ago and she really inspired me.”
An even bigger influence was Edmonton actor Crystal Lightning, who’s also an Indigenous DJ and now one of Kookum’s good friends. In addition, Kookum said that she was impressed by Edmonton DJ and grassdancer Matthew Creeasian, who’s of Cree and Vietnamese ancestry.
“Every time I met another Indigenous DJ, I was inspired,” she said.
Eventually, Kookum decided that she had to escape all the trouble around her on the reserve, including crime and drugs.
“It just got to the point [where] I was, like, ‘this isn’t my lifestyle and that wasn’t me.’ I’m not that person,” she said. “So I was kind of like, ‘I need to get out of here before it gets worse.’
“I was witnessing my family and friends just ruining their lives so I left. I just stopped all that and basically changed my life around and finished school.”
But even after moving to Vancouver and seeing her career take off, Kookum experienced yet another tragedy.
Her younger brother Taran Kootenhayoo, a talented Vancouver actor and playwright, died suddenly last New Year’s Eve.
“He was a very amazing person and definitely had a huge influence on me,” Kookum said. “He was so kind and gentle and patient.…He inspired me to be like that. I miss him a lot.”
Kookum never imagined back in Cold Lake that as an adult, she would play some of the same festivals as Sainte-Marie. The 80-year-old Saskatchewan-born singer-songwriter is a legendary Indigenous figure in Canadian music history not only for her artistry, but also for her pacifism and political activism.
“She’s still rockin’,” Kookum said. “It’s awesome.”
As Kookum evolves into a role model for her younger protégés, she too may one day have a similar impact on generations of Indigenous kids to come. And if that eventually transpires, she will have truly lived up to that name, Kookum, which was bestowed on her in jest so many years ago.