ninikamon, I sing.
About thirteen years ago, I finally picked up a guitar and started to learn how to play. I can’t say that over a decade of playing has made me a particularly proficient guitarist though. At times I have spent up to five hours a day practising, and then in other periods of my life I sometimes go months without touching the guitar. I do not consider myself a musician. It’s not something I do to make a living, and it isn’t something I want to do as a living. It’s a hobby, pure and simple.
The guitar was a means to an end. I wanted to sing. I did not always have that desire. Oh, I always loved music and I have always loved playing music whether it was on the piano or on the flute, but I didn’t care much for singing.
That is, until I heard Violeta Parra sing.
My ex-husband is Chilean, and he had given me a mix tape of Chilean folkloric music, all part of the Nueva Canción or New Song movement. I was learning Spanish at the time and he thought it would help to listen to songs in Spanish. It did so much more than that.
The first time I heard Violeta’s raw voice I felt pierced through and through. I did not even understand all her words. She made references to things I would only learn about later. But the sound. It wasn’t polished. It wasn’t complicated. But it was real.
I became obsessed with her, with her life, with her music. I sat in front of the tape player and rewound, listened, rewound, listened. I borrowed a guitar and my ex taught me a few chords to get me started. I probably only knew how to play four or five chords for a very long time, but it was enough. I sat there with my borrowed guitar and Violeta’s voice and I learned her songs.
She travelled around the countryside of Chile, learning old songs and keeping them alive. She helped create a thriving artistic community that both revived and recreated folklore in Latin America. Sibling of many, mother to many, inspiration to many more, she also created beautiful works of art. She was the first Latin American female artist to be shown at the Louvre. Through her, I learned about the Mapuche people of southern Chile and Argentina. Through her I learned about Chile’s turbulent history and its tortured relationship with copper. I learned that you can capture the sound of a heart breaking.
She died before the first September 11, before the coup of 1973 when Salvador Allende’s life ended in violence and General Pinochet unleashed a reign of terror on the Chilean people. She took her own life five years before her good friend and fellow musician, Victor Jara, had his hands broken by Pinochet’s thugs after which they got around to murdering him. This amazing woman who accomplished so much was also a tortured soul, someone who perhaps felt too strongly at times. But it made her who she was.
I sing because she sang. Because she made me feel that I could.
For years I learned her songs, and the songs of other Nueva Canción or Nueva Trova artists, like Victor Jara, Inti-illimani, Quilapayún, Quelentaro, Patricio Manns, Atahualpa Yupanquí, Silvio Rodriquez and so many more. For over a decade, almost all the music I listened to was Latin American folklore. I learned about refalosas, tonadas, periconas, coplas, cuecas, sirillas and all the other musical styles and dances associated with the kinds of music I was listening to. Wait, no, I didn’t learn how to dance them! I just learned that there were dances that went with each style. Except perhaps the coplas, which are these amazing spoken/sung songs often accompanied by incredibly intricate guitar playing.
Of course, I wanted to write my own songs. I tried writing in English. Hated it. I tried writing in Spanish. Better, but still not right. Finally, I took this Latin American folkloric style of guitar playing, and I began writing songs in Cree.
There. That felt right. Now I was saying something worth saying.
When I perform, I try to make that link between what influenced me to begin singing and what I sing now. I like to perform the songs that first inspired me so that you can hear the similarities. In part it is to remain honest about my influences, but it is also to honour the work of these artists.
One of the most…amazing moments I have experienced while singing was during an Anishinabek Constitutional conference in Nipissing. I was not performing there, but I did share my grandmother’s honour song. When I said I would be doing this, everyone stood up, because they all knew what an honour song was. It was a simple thing, but for me it was powerful. I did not have to explain anything because I was among people who knew. It was in Nipissing that I learned how similar Anishinaabemowin is to our Cree.
I am learning through trial and error when and where to play. I have discovered that sometimes, native artists are engaged in order to bring ‘legitimacy’ to the work that non-natives do, either ‘on our behalf’ or in other areas labelled as social justice. That can be incredibly confusing and frustrating. I have learned to trust my gut feelings about these invitations, but sometimes I don’t notice until I’m already doing it. I have learned that I do not ever again want to play my grandmother’s honour song in front of a room of people getting drunk.
I have also learned that audiences are far more forgiving than I am of my mistakes and off days. I love playing for other native people, or for non-natives who are honestly interested in our cultures. I love joking with them about the themes of the songs. I love singing in my language.
I have not learned how to take compliments. When I have finished singing, I want to melt away and be ignored. I have never learned how to gracefully accept praise. I confuse praise with bragging, as though somehow another person’s enjoyment of my songs means I am getting a big head. Cree humility is a strong thing, no matter how we tease and joke. I do not think I am a good musician. I do think that I am adequate, and I hope that I inspire other people to share their songs, and their languages.