Native North America: Crate Digger Breathes New Life into Long-lost Art

This is the first post in a three-part series leading up to Native North America: A Selection of Musical Trailblazers on Stage at Winnipeg Folk Fest. Stay tuned for Part 2, which will highlight the artists performing on July 9.

If recent Polaris Music Prize recognition is any indication, the aboriginal music scene in Canada is alive and well. Thriving, even.

But what makes the critical acclaim and commercial success of artists like Buffy Sainte-Marie, Tanya Tagaq (back-to-back winners in 2015 and 2014, respectively) and A Tribe Called Red (short-listed in 2013) so significant is the shift it represents in mainstream music.

Kevin Howes (courtesy Instagram)

Kevin Howes (courtesy Instagram)

Historically, indigenous artists have faced an uphill battle just to be heard (never mind appreciated). Limited distribution, lack of financial support and widespread racism typically kept them on the margins of society and prevented their music from spreading beyond their remote communities. Indeed, there are entire generations of talented Native North American musicians who were not so much forgotten as completely – and criminally – ignored.

Kevin Howes is hoping to change that.

Thanks to his keen ear and a relentless pursuit of history, the Vancouver-based crate digger has brought some of these musicians from near extinction into the light.

It started more than 20 years ago, when Howes stumbled upon the debut album of a little-known singer/songwriter named Willie Dunn. Fascinated by Dunn’s story, Howes set out to learn all he could about a lost generation of indigenous musicians who were overlooked in the prime of their careers. For the next two decades he scoured record shops, interviewed community members, and eventually went straight to the source – the artists themselves.

Fast forward to November 2014 and Light in Attic Records‘ release of Native North America (Vol. 1): Aboriginal Folk, Rock and Country 1966-1985. Compiled and curated by Howes, the three-LP box set takes the listener on a 20-year journey featuring 23 artists and 34 remastered tracks. Complete with in-depth liner notes, artist interviews, unseen archival photos and lyrics (along with translations), the compilation is about so much more than just the music. It is a cultural time stamp, essential listening for everyone from the casual music fan to the most fiendish audiophile. Not surprisingly, it earned a 2015 Grammy nomination for Best Historical Album, and Light in the Attic called it the “most ambitious and historically significant project in the label’s 12-year history.”


NNA V1 was nominated for Best Historical Album at the 2015 Grammys.

The next step in Howes’ quest is to raise awareness about some of the artists featured on the album in an exclusive workshop at Winnipeg Folk Festival this summer. In addition to Willie Thrasher, Willy Mitchell, Eric Landry and Duke Redbird, the 75-minute set will feature a special appearance from Winnipeg singer/songwriter William Prince.

We recently caught up with Howes, whose historic accomplishment has kept him busier than he ever could have imagined. Here’s what the DJ/journalist/historian/archivist/blogger had to say about collecting vinyl, compiling NNA Vol.1 and coming to Winnipeg.

Native North America Vol. 1 was a long time coming. How long did the process take from start to finish?

NNA V1 took five years of production to complete, but I have been collecting the music over the last 20 years in my travels across Canada.

Which artist or record spurred your exploration of this long-lost aboriginal art?

Watching Willie Dunn’s 1968 NFB (National Film Board) The Ballad of Crowfoot film in high school at the dawn of the 1990s was an early spark for me. Finding his 1971 debut album years later, and connecting the dots between the movie and his records, was a major catalyst for this project.

Editor’s note: Willie Dunn passed away on Aug. 5, 2013, during the making of Native North America Vol. 1. The compilation was released in his honour.

Part of what makes this compilation so fascinating is that despite the obvious talent and song-writing skills of these artists, they were fairly unknown outside of their respective regions. It’s hard not to draw parallels with Searching for Sugar Man. Are there any “Sugar Man Rodriguez” stories among these musicians, where they were popular or recognized outside of their own communities and just didn’t know it?

As I’ve learned over the years, every person has an incredible story. Some stories though, like that of Sixto Rodriguez, who I’ve had the privilege to work with on the reissues of his music, are more fantastical than others.

Willie Dunn and Morley Loon were two artists who garnered attention in Europe and were able to tour in Germany during the 1980s. To me, the lack of mainstream commercial success for the majority of the artists featured on NNA V1 is a story unto itself, especially considering the strength and social commentary of the music. It was as if the Canadian music industry or mass media just didn’t want to know. Seeing the compilation jump right over the Juno Awards and into a Grammy nomination in the U.S. this year may mean that not much has changed in this country.

What about within their communities? Were these guys treated as celebrities? Or were they just seen as fathers, sons, neighbours, run-of-the-mill local musicians?

That’s a good question for the artists themselves. Their experiences vary, but I’ve certainly heard positive stories from family members, community folks, and original fans about all of the artists featured on NNA V1. I can tell you that the music was much loved regionally, and now, in the digital age, can be shared with folks around the world.

Looking back on the folk explosion of the ’60s, it’s pretty incredible how guys like Dylan and Cohen were able to break out in such a big way. What do you think was the biggest barrier to more widespread distribution and recognition for the artists featured on NNA V1?

One of the main reasons artists like Dylan, Cohen, and Neil Young were able to break out was because they had money and major record labels with connections to radio and the media behind them. They also had a certain type of drive and ambition, as well as the necessary talent.

I believe that racism also played a factor. Artists like Willie Dunn and Shingoose were no less talented than some of their better-known peers, they just didn’t have the same opportunities, support, or maybe even interest in the case of Dunn, necessary to go down that rock-star road. Dunn, in particular, was vibrating on a different channel altogether – a true artist.

Did any of the artists on NNA V1 have connections to the more popular and mainstream artists of the time?

Word has it that Duke Redbird lived in the same apartment as Joni Mitchell in the 1960s and worked with Bruce Cockburn in a group called Abundance to Revolution. In the 1970s, Duke and Bruce collaborated with Shingoose on his 1975 Native Country EP.

You’ve said in interviews that “songs are only part of the equation.” Why was it so important that you traced the roots of this music and shared the history behind it?

When I started to find these recordings, I had trouble finding any information about the artists. Who were they? Where were they from? What was the inspiration behind these songs? One by one, I reached out to the songwriters and players. First, to thank them for their music, which had affected me in a deep and meaningful way, even as a non-Indigenous person, and then to ask for much-needed context.

Music, art, film, literature, poetry, and fashion are all connected. The songs represent life, Indigenous expression, history, nature, and so much more. With a reissue, I feel that it’s important to share as much as possible—sound, stories, and images—for the listeners who weren’t alive during that decisive era and also to celebrate the memories of those that were.

The album is book-ended by tunes from 1966 and 1985. What do you notice about the evolution of the music in those 20 years? And what have you noticed in the evolution of music by Aboriginal artists in the 30 years since?

Musical styles are always changing, but the spirit and feeling within remains constant. In the 1950s and ’60s, folk, rock, and country were dominant styles in popular music. Today, we have hip-hop and electronic music leading the way. I see this as part of a greater evolution or lineage. If Willie Dunn was a teenager today, I could see him being a rapper. He was such a powerful poet and songwriter with so much to say.

OG Sikumiut

A rare copy of Sikumiut

If you had to guess, how many copies of the original records featured on NNA V1 still exist?

Most of the vinyl records featured on NNA V1 were originally pressed in small numbers of about 100 to 500 for broadcast play or selling off of the stage at gigs. Others were sold at independent record stores and cultural organizations. Over the years, people downsize, update formats, pass away, or throw stuff out. Today, the OG records are extremely difficult to find. Try asking for a Sikumiut 7” at your local record shop! They are so tough to find, even for a seasoned collector.

The ’60s and ’70s were a turbulent time for Canada in general, and the Aboriginal population in particular. But looking back at the issues these artists were singing about, 50 years later, not a lot has changed. In re-releasing their music and sharing their stories with a new generation, are you more hopeful this time around?

Since the compilation dropped, I have been putting on grassroots events featuring a selection of the artists from the project. There have also been shows, which have received some financial backing, like the upcoming Winnipeg Folk Festival workshop. Each gathering has brought together people of different backgrounds and ages in a celebration of culture, life, art, and music.

I’m hopeful that by learning from and sharing with each other, while paying respect to the Mother Earth, we can improve the world in which we live. My goal for NNA V1 was to bridge generations, cultures, and eras of technology, and I feel that it’s been successful in those regards. Music, as we know, is a great connector. We need it now more than ever.

Are you currently listening to any contemporary Indigenous musicians. If so, which ones? And why?

To be honest, I often find myself stuck in the musical past. There is so much out there for me to explore, but I always try to keep my ears open to what’s happening today. I recently shared A Tribe Called Red’s Stadium Pow Wow featuring Black Bear on my blog; I really dig that track. But another thing that I wanted to showcase through NNA V1 is that many of the veteran artists are still going strong all of these years later. They’re still writing and recording great music. Willie Thrasher’s latest songs are so powerful.

Outside of the music, what did the process of compiling NNA V1 teach you about Aboriginal culture? What’s the biggest takeaway from your years of research?

Compiling Native North America helped to teach me about the diversity of Aboriginal culture, the strong traditions, its rich musical past and more details about the history of Canada from the Indigenous perspective. Learning more about colonialism, the residential school system, and corporate greed at the expense of the environment, definitely made me question my notions of national pride and identity, but I view this as a process that will unfold over time. The key is to keep asking questions and never stop listening.

This was “Volume 1.” What’s next?

Well, Light in the Attic Records will be carrying on with Native North America (Vol. 2), as per my direction. That edition will feature crucial Native American artists like Floyd Red Crow Westerman and A. Paul Ortega.

I’m currently assembling a music and film anthology of Willie Dunn, which will be self-released with his family, while continuing to work with as many of the NNA V1 artists as possible on concerts and multi-media events. This is such a busy time. There is new music to record, gigs to be played, and awareness to be raised. I’ve been immersed in this work for the last 12 years full-time and won’t be stopping any time soon. Keep checking Voluntary In Nature for the latest updates.

Read Part 2 of our Native North America series here, and Part 3 here.


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