SUSAN AGULKARK , ART NAPOLEON, EAGLE & HAWK, MIKE GOUCHIE and more, as part of the Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre's John Bassett Theatre (255 Front West), Friday (November 24), doors 7 pm. $35-$40. 416-872-1111. The Canadian Aboriginal Festival runs at the Rogers Centre (1 Blue Jays Way), Friday-Sunday (November 24-26). $5-$10, family passes $25. 416-872-1111. Rating: NNNNN
Most canadians couldn't name an aboriginal song or singer if they were threatened with having their land sold for a fraction of its value.
That's a sad reality, considering that aboriginal songwriters have masterminded some of the most memorable songs of recent decades.
Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes had Buffy Sainte-Marie to thank for lifting them up where they belonged (to the top of the charts with a platinum single). Johnny Cash released the smash country hit The Ballad Of Ira Hayes, penned by Narragansett folk singer and Greenwich Village music scenester Peter La Farge. And aboriginal musicians have themselves danced in the burning flame of stardom, from Inuk singer/songwriter Susan Aglukark, who scored a hit in 1994 with O Síem to Robbie Robertson, the Red Boy himself.
The Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards grew out of an awareness of the immense talent that exists across Indian Country and the reality that it has gone largely unnoticed by mainstream audiences.
As Vince Fontaine of Juno-winning and CAMA-nominated country group Eagle & Hawk explains, "The CAMAs give the aboriginal music community a chance to celebrate individual and community accomplishments. It gives us motivation. Many of us didn't grow up in positive settings, so the idea of getting called to the podium is a big thing. I think any kind of positive reinforcement is good for the music and good for the soul."
And after a year of deadbeat-dad federalism and media attention that spawned more scary images of Indians blocking roads and setting things on fire, a forum that applauds aboriginal people for expressing themselves is exceptionally welcome.
"Sometimes in the mainstream media world we feel pretty invisible," offers Andrea Menard, nominated this year for best female artist. "Our own awards show allows us to strut our stuff and celebrate our greatness with good old-fashioned glamour and style!"
Stereotypes, compounded by the geographic isolation of most aboriginal communities, influence even the most open-minded music enthusiast.
Contrary to popular belief, aboriginal music doesn't consist of the soothing sounds of native American flute. Jason Makinaw (aka JMak), producer of hiphop crew RezOfficial's CAMA-nominated album, Rezofficial Music Presents: Lakes Aquì - The Preview, says, "A show like this demonstrates the diversity of our people. We don't only play powwow music. We have musicians for every musical genre there is."
Despite this range, aboriginal musicians struggle to gain a broad listenership. They know that even if what they're playing is blues or rock, their music is often slotted in the marginally browsed world music section at stores, and because of the lack of mainstream media and music industry attention, their audience remains predominantly aboriginal.
Having your own community's approval is something most artists strive for, but sustaining a musical career on the shoulders of Canada's 5 per cent aboriginal minority is nothing but a pipe dream. Even last year's best female artist winner, sometime-Björk collaborator Tanya Tagaq Gillis, who went on to win the Juno for best aboriginal recording for her throat-singing contortions, hasn't hit the jackpot.
But awards shows offer opportunities beyond financial ones.
"These awards celebrate the artists. They promote awareness and respect all forms of traditional and contemporary music," says multiple CAMA nominee Tamara Podemski. She insists that regardless of the barriers aboriginal musicians face, the CAMAs strengthen aboriginal cultures.
"They bring the community together, which is always a means of supporting our culture."