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Spirit Song Festival 2018 leaves attendees in high spirits

Indigenous folk duo Twin Flames headlined the 2018 Spirit Song Festival at the Cochrane Street United Church on Saturday.
Indigenous folk duo Twin Flames headlined the 2018 Spirit Song Festival at the Cochrane Street United Church on Saturday. - Wendy Rose

Bathing in the soft glow of stage lights in the Cochrane Street United Church, the St. John’s Native Friendship Centre celebrated its rebranding as First Light St. John’s Friendship Centre, with a series of beautiful musical performances.

The 2018 Spirit Song Festival was held Saturday, with a family-friendly early start at 7 p.m.

After a short introduction from MC Chris Sheppard, executive director of First Light, the festival kicked off with a short opening prayer and land acknowledgement from Emma Reelis, a local elder and First Light president, who happily welcomed all Indigenous and non-Indigenous attendees to the evening’s festivities.

Another elder, Marjorie Muise, then performed an honour song, before a video introduction of the friendship centre’s new brand.

Introducing himself and his music in the Mi’kmaq language, Nova Scotia-based musician Michael R. Denny played a number of songs on a traditional drum.

Performing selections from his 2016 album, “Traditionally Yours: Mi’kmaq Drums, Young and Old,” Denny ended his set with an original composition, inspiring dancers in full regalia to sway, swirl and stomp along with the beautiful music.

Local Inuit drum group Kilautiup Songuniga then surprised the audience by beginning their performance at the back of the church, playing their hand drums as they walked through the aisles heading to the stage.

The four-piece act incorporated traditional drums, acoustic guitar and throat singing into their short set, which included a moving song about the women of Labrador.

Another short set was next, as a trio of teenage girls took to the stage. Though they performed just three songs, the Se't A'nenwey Choir wowed with their impressive harmonies and gorgeous regalia.

Local all-women all-nations drum circle Eastern Owl was next on the bill, the seven-piece band playing a number of folk-y songs accompanied by seven-part harmonies, as well as additional vocals from Shallaway Youth Choir, and local musicians on guitar, bass, drums and upright bass.

Performing a slew of slow and poignant songs, the group illustrated how their Indigenous culture inspires and enlightens their lives, individually and together.

The band is currently working on “Qama'si (Stand Up),” their highly anticipated second album, which will include recordings of “A Little Strange,” “Textbook Description, and the extremely moving, “Ajimpa,” all performed at the Spirit Song Festival.

Headliners Twin Flames finished off the night, the husband and wife duo bringing down the house with a well-rounded set of folk songs, with flute, guitar, harmonica and drum.

Jaaji, an Inuk Mohawk from Quqtaq, Nunavik, and Chelsey June, an Algonquin Cree métis from Ottawa, sang in English, French and Inuttitut, discussing their unique heritage and culture with the audience between songs.

The group shared their excitement about returning to St. John’s, having played The Ship Pub two years earlier.

Since that show, the band released their 2017 album “Signal Fire,” which netted wins from the Canadian Folk Music Awards and the Native American Music Awards in the U.S.
Spirit Song attendees heard a number of songs from that album, as well as a Tragically Hip cover, and a song inspired by conversations about the Canada 150 celebrations.

Their beautiful set wrapped up around 9:30 p.m., leaving the audience to ruminate on what the next 150 years will bring – hopefully reconciliation, collective healing and opportunities for all Canadians everywhere to enjoy more beautiful Indigenous art, music and culture, together.

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