What do Crystal Shawanda, Leela Gilday, Northern Cree powwow group, a dozen other Indigenous artists, and Roots band Sultans of String have in common? They have all come together in the spirit of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action and Final Report that calls for Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists to work together to find a path forward, and have created Walking Through the Fire. This album and live show are a powerful collection of collaborations between the roots group and First Nations, Métis, and Inuit artists from across Turtle Island, with the CD releasing September 15, 2023, and a live concert tour launching on September 28, leading up to and following the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
Fire can be destructive, as we have seen with the unprecedented forest fires still burning in Canada. But what we see right afterward is interesting, as collaborating Indigenous art director Mark Rutledge explains, referencing the title and cover art of Walking Through the Fire. “You’ll see the burnt-out husks of trees and the ash and the charcoal on the landscape. But fireweed is the first plant after a forest fire that emerges, and you’ll see rivers and fields of magenta within the barren landscape, and those nutrients are going back into the soil for the next generation of trees and flowers and regrowth.”
There is fear instilled within the very notion of fire because it can be so destructive, not just to the landscape, but to the lives of people. But what lies beyond fear that holds people back from achieving what they want to achieve? “The other side of fear is growth and potential with collaboration between non-Indigenous and Indigenous people,” Mark continues. “When we drop the word reconciliation on people, there’s a large group of people who don’t understand what that means. And when you don’t understand something, you are fearful of it. But if we go through the same experience together, we walk through that fire together, and we come out together on the other end and have that unified experience together, that’s the power in this album.”
Together these artists are making a safe, creative space where new connections can be dreamed of – not in the Western way of thinking and problematizing – but instead a deeper sharing and understanding, with music being the common ground to help cultures connect and understand each other. “We are opening doors for each other, as Indigenous peoples, as settler peoples. This project is about creating connections and spaces to learn from each other” explains collaborator Alyssa Delbaere-Sawchuk, violist with Métis Fiddler Quartet.
Nine-time Grammy-nominated Northern Cree and community organisers in Kettle and Stony Point welcomed Sultans of String to their annual powwow for one of these collaborations. Steve Wood, drummer and singer, explains, “When you’re collaborating with mainstream music, it shows that we can work together to bring out the very best in who we are as human beings, and we can bring out something very beautiful.”
A central theme running through Walking Through the Fire is the need for the whole truth of Residential Schools and the Indigenous experience to be told long before reconciliation can possibly take place. Grammy-nominated Elder and poet Dr. Duke Redbird, who in many ways provided the initial inspiration for this project, explains, “The place that we have to start is with truth. Reconciliation will come sometime way in the future, perhaps, but right now, truth is where we need to begin the journey with each other.”
Sultans violinist Chris McKhool, who was recently awarded the Dr. Duke Redbird Lifetime Achievement Award by Redbird and JAYU Arts for Human Rights for working to amplify these truths through collaborations, says, “This country has a history that has been ignored, distorted, twisted to suit colonialist goals of destroying a people. We are so fortunate for the opportunity to work with Indigenous artists, sharing their stories, their experiences, and their lives with us, so we can continue our work of learning about the history of residential schools, genocide, and intergenerational impacts of colonization. Music has a special capacity for healing, connecting, and expressing truth.”
McKhool leads the 3x JUNO nominated, 6x CFMA-winning band, who recorded the bed tracks at Jukasa Studios, an Indigenous-owned world-class recording facility on the Six Nations reserve south of Hamilton, Ontario. “We were so fortunate to be able to work at Jukasa, as well as consult with exceptional Indigenous artists on this project,” says McKhool. “We were lucky to be able to work with Indigenous designer Mark Rutledge and Indigenous filmmakers and videographers Eliza Knockwood and Marc Merilainen, working with our usual team, to come up with a look and feel for the album.”
The Honourable Murray Sinclair, former chair of the TRC, said, “The very fact that you’re doing this tells me that you believe in the validity of our language, you believe in the validity of our art and our music, and that you want to help to bring it out. And that’s really what’s important: for people to have faith that we can do this.” Sinclair also spoke about the importance of using Indigenous languages so these do not become lost. The recording and concert features lyrics in Dene, Inuktitut, Sm’algyax, Cree, and Michif.
Sultans of String is a fiercely independent band that has always tried to lift up those around them and has exposed many of their collaborators and special guests to new audiences at their shows, including at JUNOfest, NYC’s legendary Birdland Jazz Club, Celtic Connections Festival in Glasgow, and London’s Trafalgar Square. Led by Queen’s Diamond Jubilee recipient McKhool, they have collaborated with orchestras across North America and have played live on CBC’s Canada Live, BBC TV, Irish National Radio, and SiriusXM in Washington. They have recorded and performed with such diverse luminaries as Paddy Moloney & The Chieftains, Sweet Honey in The Rock, Richard Bona, Alex Cuba, Ruben Blades, Benoit Bourque, and Béla Fleck. Their work during the pandemic on The Refuge Project amplified the voices of new immigrants and refugees, earning them CFMAs and Best Musical Film at the Cannes World Film Festival.
Says Raven Kanatakta of Digging Roots: “We have to move beyond ally-ship, and we have to move into relationships of being co-conspirators, get down into the dirt and start working together and start moving forward. We’re all equals here, and we all need to communicate as equals. We actually need Canadians to step up and take that first move.”
TRACK LISTING 1. A Beautiful Darkness feat. Marc Meriläinen / Nadjiwan (Ojibwe) 2. The Rez feat. Crystal Shawanda (Ojibwe Potawatomi) 3. Take Off the Crown feat. Raven Kanatakta of Digging Roots (Anishinaabe Algonquin / Onkwehón:we Mohawk) 4. Ko?´ feat. Leela Gilday (Dene) & Leanne Taneton (Dene) 5. Nîmihito (Dance) feat. Northern Cree (Cree) 6. Lost and Found feat. Shannon Thunderbird & Kate Dickson (Ts’msyen) 7. Black Winged Raven feat. Shannon Thunderbird (Ts’msyen) 8. Our Mother The Earth feat. Dr. Duke Redbird (Chippewa/Anishinaabe) 9. Sweet Alberta feat. The North Sound (w/ Forrest Eaglespeaker – Blackfoot) 10. Humma feat. Kendra Tagoona & Tracy Sarazin (Inuit) 11. Highway of Tears feat. Don Ross (Mi'kmaw) & M.J. Dandeneau (Métis) 12. Chanson de Riel feat. Métis Fiddler Quartet (Métis) 13. Tkaronto Reel feat. Métis Fiddler Quartet (Métis) 14. Quviasuliqpunga feat. Kendra Tagoona & Tracy Sarazin (Inuit)
Photo Credits: (1)-(2) Sultans of String, (3) Don Ross, (4) Crystal Shawanda, (5) Métis Fiddler Quartet (unknown/website).