Outback, Great White North meet at Folk Fest
Roger Knox is joining Vancouver artist Kristi Lane Sinclair at a Folk Festival workshop.
Kristi Lane Sinclair Perform Saturday and Sunday at the Calgary Folk Music Festival. For more information go to calgaryfolkfest.com.
The Calgary folk fest is always something of a cultural exchange program, with musicians from all corners of the globe descending on one place and sharing their similar or distinct experiences and approaches to making art.
This year is no different, but there's an intentional thrust to the programming that focuses on the link between two particular countries and two incredibly similar but unique cultures, and that's the wealth of aboriginal acts from the Great White North and the great Down Under.
The pairing, says Australian country singer Roger Knox, is as inspired as it is obvious.
"It's like a mirror image - indigenous people from Canada," says the veteran artist who will be performing several times throughout the weekend. "I'm so amazed at the similarities in a lot of our beliefs and our laws and our understanding and our struggles as aboriginal people across this whole country of Canada."
And likely Prince's Island audiences will be as well.
Knox will be leading an Aussie contingent that also includes others such as Glenn Skuthorpe and Frank Yamma. He thinks all of them, despite coming from different parts of the country, have a common story to share with this part of the world, even if the way they do it is entirely their own.
He, for example, will be doing so with a straight-up American country and western sound that will strike a familiar chord with anyone who's listened to the Hanks and Patsys of the day. It's a sound that came to his Kamilaroi people from the west way back in the Second World War, and it helped fill the void that years of state-sanctioned, forced assimilation had created, all but wiping out the Aborgines' traditional forms of cultural expression.
"Because we lost our ways and means of song and story and dance, which was taken away from us, we used that form of music to continue our stories," the singer says. "Country music is the only music growing up that I heard. And we used it as part of our storytelling."
The artist also used it throughout much of the late '70s and '80s to make a name for himself in his homeland - or rather several nicknames including that of Black Elvis and the Koori King of Country back in his land. It took on a more necessary and spiritual purpose when he famously survived two plane crashes in one day back in 1981, the first which he walked away from, the second which left him badly burned and near-death.
"I believe it was a plan, something that was set up by God, Himself, I believe," he says. "Because I've come through so much pain and suffering and healing, it was music that was a big part of that healing, that kept myself well and truly sane ...
"I guess looking back now I see how it really worked in my favour but there was a lot of suffering and I thank God every day."
An important part of the recent chapter in Knox's life was meeting Welsh musician and alternative rock icon Jon Langford several years ago. The now-Chicagobased Langford, known for his role in such acts as The Mekons and The Waco Brothers, was a fan of Knox, his story, his people's story, and wanted to help preserve them. So Langford enlisted the help of some of his friends, such as Kelly Hogan, The Sadies, Dave Alvin and Bonnie Prince Billy to record some of the old Aboriginal C & W songs on last year's starstudded Stranger In My Land.
While Knox obviously takes a great deal of pride in his role on the fantastic project, he's more honoured to be involved in something that's spreading outside of the small cultural landscape it sprang from, even bringing it to Calgary where he'll perform the material backed by The Waco Brothers.
"I'm actually more proud now because I'm actually getting to tell my story worldwide now and spread that word," he says, noting that he was actually shocked that anyone outside of his region let alone Australia would be interested.
"It did surprise me. And to actually perform in another country and get a good reaction it's quite amazing, because I come from a real small community. And even though I'm from a small community our message or our story is pretty much the same across a whole continent."
The same could be said for Canada's First Nations people and First Nations artists, which will be represented by healthy sampling of acts on this year's roster which includes Eya-Hey Nakoda, Tribe Called Red and Yamantaka //Sonic Titan.
Again, like their Aussie brethren, those similar experiences are shot through wildly different prisms and wind up on stunningly different parts of the musical spectrum, that range from what many might consider to be the more traditional drum and chantbased approach, to music that, as with Knox's country, challenges those preconceptions.
Like Vancouver-based singersongwriter Kristi Lane Sinclair, who proudly represents her Haida heritage and identifies as an aboriginal artist even if it's without speaking directly to that heritage and with a somewhat more Seattle sound.
"It's such a big part of what I do. Most of the shows that I play are in aboriginal communities, aboriginal events," Sinclair admits.
"(But) as far as talking about aboriginal culture (as a) songwriter, for me personally I don't think it's a thing. I think everything that you do when you're aboriginal is aboriginal content. So I don't think I need to allude to it with the actual words or play traditional instruments ... (and) I don't think I need to bring a drum in to say I'm a Haida artists when I play grunge music. I think that's a little cheap way out to say that you're an aboriginal artist. If it's not from the heart and the soul, I'm not going to do it."
She continues. "I'm not going non-native, I'm not going fullnative, I'm just doing my thing. And I just want whoever likes it to enjoy it."
Hard not to. Sinclair's second album, 2013's The Sea Alone, is a superb alt-folk offering, that sounds like Marnie Stern or Kim Gordon with Liona Boyd leanings - something that, itself, speaks to her unique upbringing.
Growing up in the B.C. port town of Prince Rupert, she gravitated to the harder stuffof her youth, bands such as Nirvana and the Smashing Pumpkins, starting offin punk bands on the electric guitar and feeling very much the outsider, not because of her Haida culture but the culture she most closely associated with.
"Basically Prince Rupert is a town where I was afraid to get a bang trim because that would make me look different and that would make people angry - that's Prince Rupert," she says and laughs. "So being a young girl wanting to be in punk bands and just play guitar for a living that was just something too terrifying ...
"There just wasn't much to offer a young, artistic native girl at the time."
That's why she applied to the music program at Vancouver Community College, her audition a cassette tape of her playing some Black Sabbath. They accepted her on the condition that she switch to the classical program and put down the electric guitar.
"'I was like, sure, whatever, anything to get out of Prince Rupert,' " she laughs, noting that the training she would receive would eventually become an integral part of the sound she now employs.
"It worked out really well because I feel like the classical guitar really stuck with my songwriting ... and vocally I just scream over stuffand make some melodies."
And win over audiences as she'll likely do when she performs on several occasions, including for a workshop that also includes fellow Canadian aboriginal artists Nick Sherman and Leonard Sumner, both of whom she's played with on many occasions and is looking forward to reconnecting with again.
"Aboriginal music is like a giant family," she says. "Everybody knows each other and we all go to the same thing and play the same shows ... They're all like brothers to me."
And joining them? A member of the extended family, the Koori King of Country, himself. Sinclair and Knox both admit they've never met but are ready to embrace the experience with their shared experiences.
That said, Knox also makes it known that the one great thing that anyone can share, no matter their background, no matter their country of origin or upbringing, is the simple common human act of making music and creating art.
"I'll perform with anyone," he says. "It just gives you a lift to perform with other great artists, be they indigenous or non-indigenous. It's the music and camaraderie and getting on through music is just an important thing."
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