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Organizers say this year's shows will be 'packed to the rafters'
Noticing a gap in local festivals, a committee from the St. John's Native Friendship Centre (now First Light) created Spirit Song Festival in 2013 as a celebration of Indigenous artists and culture from across the country.
The festival has been evolving and growing in scale ever since with Natasha Blackwood and Jenelle Duval serving as main organizers for the annual event.
“This year is the largest we’ve ever produced,” Duval says.
“The moment we put it up online, we were watching our registration software and it was piling in. I think this is the first year for the festival where we know we have a packed house for every single show.”
Duval looks up, pointing at the pews upstairs and the seating on the floor of the old Cochrane Street United Church, which the First Light Centre for Performance and Creativity now calls home.
“This room takes 500 to 550 people and it’s going to be packed to the rafters. … We couldn’t be more excited.”
Each show is free of charge, but because there is limited capacity, people had to register for each event.
Over the course of the festival, there will be performances by classically trained tenor Jeremy Dutcher at the St. John's Arts and Culture Centre on Friday. Dutcher’s debut album, "Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa," won the Polaris Music Prize in 2018.
Snotty Nose Rez Kids, a hip hop duo from B.C., will play an all-ages show at the Rock House on Thursday alongside DJ Kookum. The group released two full albums in 2017 and is one of only three artists to be shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize two years in a row.
Nunavut-based The Jerry Cans, which bills itself as Inuktitut rock ‘n’ roll and has toured in Australia, Scotland, Greenland, Cuba and Norway, will play at the First Light Centre for Performance and Creativity on Saturday.
Festival co-ordinator Blackwood says the range of mediums and genres Indigenous artists work in shouldn’t be surprising.
“I don’t think that’s a new thing,” Blackwood says. “Indigenous people all over Canada have been making incredible, boundary-pushing music for as long as I’ve been listening.”
The difference, Blackwood says, is more people are paying attention.
But the festival isn’t simply about sharing the variety of new music and art. Duval says the festival also serves as a way to share knowledge about Indigenous traditions.
“Indigenous people all over Canada have been making incredible, boundary-pushing music for as long as I’ve been listening.” — Natasha Blackwood
This includes braiding, pow-wow dancing, throat singing and sweetgrass basket-making. Blackwood says the passing on of traditions is a responsibility.
“It’s not like other disciplines where you can go get a textbook or take a class at university,” Blackwood says. “(Traditions) are passed through generations, they’re passed through community, they’re passed through families.”
Blackwood and Duval also perform as part of Eastern Owl, a group that plays First Nation drum music, and will perform Saturday alongside The Jerry Cans, Michael R. Denny and Wape’k Muin.
“(Jenelle and I) are drum carriers,” Blackwood says. “And when you carry a drum it’s your responsibility to share those teachings that you’ve gathered with younger people within your community.”
While these traditions are important, Duval says there’s a need to get away from the idea there is a specific sound or look to Indigenous music and art.
“We hope that this festival really represents the wide variety of Indigenous art that’s happening in Canada,” Duval says. “It’s got many different faces.”
The festival is about sharing and creating, Blackwood says.
“I would just like to celebrate that we do have a voice and use it to share what we do,” Blackwood says.
Spirit Song Festival takes place Thursday to Saturday.