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Canadian Indigenous musicians offer a little bit of everything at sixth annual event
The sixth annual Spirit Song Festival was held in St. John’s this past weekend, with a slew of performances, workshops, and events occurring in various locations in the capital city from November 21-23.
Put on by First Light NL, formerly The St. John's Native Friendship Centre, the festival brought in big names from the Canadian Indigenous arts scene.
This year’s festival was kicked off by Snotty Nose Rez Kids, a British Columbia-based rap group that calls Kitamaat Village home.
This was the second time Snotty Nose Rez Kids performed on the island in 2019, having participated in Lawnya Vawnya in May. The group returned to The Rockhouse again for Spirit Song Festival, this time playing to a much different crowd, as the show was for all ages.
After a DJ set from DJ Kokum, also a member of SNRK, rappers Darren "Young D" Metz and Quinton "Yung Trybez" Nyce hit the stage.
The sold-out show was jam-packed with youth, screaming explicit but simultaneously witty, metaphorical, and socially conscious lyrics back at the band.
Snotty Nose Rez Kids were highly engaging, inviting the teens and tweens onto the stage for “Boujee Natives,” and later joining them in the crowd for a mosh-pit — after explaining mosh-pit etiquette to the young attendees.
Lyrical topics and stage banter highlighted ongoing drinking water issues, pipeline protests, land rights, preserving language, culture, and traditions, and addressed systemic racism, with a special shout-out to those who claim they “don’t see colour.”
A personal highlight was watching dozens of youth joining the band in a “F*ck Justin Trudeau” chant, grinning widely as they yelled a word they are rarely — if ever — encouraged to use.
Throughout the weekend, workshops on throat singing, sweetgrass weaving, powwow dancing, braiding, songwriting, and more, were offered at Eastern Edge Gallery and at Cochrane Centre.
On Friday night, Jeremy Dutcher took to the stage at the Arts and Culture Centre, showcasing his talent of blending his Wolastoq First Nation musical traditions with classical, pop, and traditional music. A 2018 Polaris Music Prize winner for his album “Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa,” his performance was stellar, according to reviews from attending friends.
Spirit Song Festival wrapped up on November 23, with the main stage show at Cochrane Centre.
The stacked roster featured performances from Wape’k Muin, a seven-piece men’s drum circle, followed by throat singing from Tama Fost and Jenny Williams, with projections from Jerry Evans.
The pair debuted a new song, “Spirit Song,” written in the hallway prior to the show. Williams and Fost were clearly having fun, as throat singing is a kind of game. At one point, having stumbled in the performance, Fost smirked at the audience and blamed “technical issues” — the humour lies in the fact that their voices are their instruments.
Eastern Owl were next on-stage, performing as a six-piece instead of their usual eight. The all-nations, all-women drum circle offered just one song – a tribute to Velma Piercey, principal of St. Anne's High School in Conne River, who died suddenly on November 18.
Returning Spirit Song performer Michael R. Denny was joined by fellow Nova Scotians Aaron Prosper and dancer Andrea Dennis. The trio showcased the art of Ko'jua, a traditional Mi’kmaq social dance using an instrument called a Ji'kmaqn.
The highlight of the night was the headliners The Jerry Cans, also returning to NL for the second time in 2019 — they wowed audiences at the 2019 Folk Festival.
Hailing from Nunavut, the six-piece band — randomly featuring Loel Campbell from Wintersleep on drums for some reason — performed selections from their three-album discography, their content focused on life in the Arctic.
The dancing amped up during their set, as children and adults alike abandoned the pews to dance side-stage.
After a surprising cover of local traditional tune “Mussels In The Corner” and a cover of The Tragically Hip’s “Ahead By A Century” translated into Inuktitut, The Jerry Cans invited a young fan onstage for a song.
Having previously told the band that he plans to be the first Inuk in space, the nine-year-old took to the mic for “Mamatuq,” inspiring the crowd to sing along.
As they have in previous years, Spirit Song Festival demonstrated its ability to host inclusive, accessible, and safe spaces to showcase Indigenous arts and culture for attendees of all ages and backgrounds, both inside and outside of the local Indigenous community.