New Constellations tour builds community and camaraderie among Indigenous and non-Indigenous musicians

"It’s the first time I’ve been on a reserve performing my work for the people I made it for,” says musician and writer Leanne Betasamosake Simpson

LEANNE BETASAMOSAKE SIMPSON, WEAVES, FEIST, LIDO PIMIENTA, ELISAPIE, SAFIA NOLIN and others as part of NEW CONSTELLATIONS at the Opera House (735 Queen East), Wednesday (December 20), doors 8:30 pm. Sold out.

“It’s the first time I’ve performed in front of an Anishinaabe audience. It’s the first time I’ve been on a reserve performing my work for the people I made it for,” says Leanne Betasamosake Simpson.

The Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg academic, writer and musician is speaking about her recent performance in Wiikwemkoong, an unceded reserve on Manitoulin Island and where the New Constellations tour touched down on November 29.

“To not have to explain the Anishinaabe words, to interact with the audience and have them so excited and so loving, that was a really, really rare and beautiful experience,” she says.

That an established Indigenous artist such as Simpson could have gone so long without having played to her intended audience is not uncommon for Indigenous performers, an injustice that New Constellations is trying to correct.

A collaboration between long-running Toronto concert series The Basement Revue and Toronto-based Indigenous record label Revolutions Per Minute, the tour has been linking up Indigenous and non-Indigenous musicians and writers on a cross-Canada trek that kicked off in November. The final stop is in Toronto on Wednesday.

The Basement Revue is a live music and literary variety show that started in 2007. It was there that Simpson connected with its founders, musician Jason Collett and poet Damian Rogers,  and initiated discussions around the inclusion of Indigenous musicians.

Collett and Rogers were receptive, so she introduced them to Jarrett Martineau, who runs RPM Records, and New Constellations was born.

Simpson had already performed the western leg when I called her in Fredericton ahead of that night’s performance. Although each show features a rotating cast of guests, she is among the few that have played multiple dates and says the experience has brought the musicians closer together.

True to the tour’s roots at The Basement Revue, the concerts have a relaxed, informal vibe that lends itself to collaboration. “Jeremy Dutcher is an amazing Wolastoq musician. At the beginning of the western leg he was just doing his set, and by the end of it he was onstage with everybody in everybody’s band, singing, playing keys and drums,” she says.

The camaraderie continues offstage, too. “I don’t get to spend a lot of time with Indigenous musicians and non-Indigenous musicians,” she says. “Being on the bus, and being essentially a community in and of ourselves, figuring out how to move through the world as a group was a really profound experience.”

Offstage is also where community building takes place. At six of the 13 dates (Edmonton, Winnipeg, Thunder Bay, Wiikwemkoong, Fredericton and Kitigan Zibi), the writers and musicians have also acted as mentors at daytime workshops.

At an Indigenous high school in Thunder Bay, July Talk’s Peter Dreimanis and Leah Fay led a songwriting workshop, while hip-hop duo Mob Bounce taught DJing and writing rap verses.

The workshops avoid being too heavily structured, focusing instead on fostering relationships between students and instructors to build trust and create an open environment. “It’s not an easy thing to do when you’re young,” Simpson explains, “to come to a workshop with a [successful] band like July Talk.”

Independent from the tour, New Constellations is also starting a digital mentorship program open to emerging Indigenous musicians, producers and songwriters across the country. Successful applicants will be paired with a mentor who will help them develop their work over a few months via Skype.

Weaves’ vocalist/songwriter Jasmyn Burke is one of the mentors and is also performing at the Toronto date. She’s excited at the prospect of working with a young songwriter, in part to share her craft but also for the rare opportunity to uplift someone who might not otherwise get such an opportunity.

She likens the mentorship to “almost like a big sister/big brother. It hopefully allows more movement within the industry and different voices to be heard.”

Burke isn’t formally trained in music and writes using looping pedals.

“For someone who didn’t even think about making music [using pedals], it opens the door to try,” she adds. “Whether you’re Indigenous, a woman or somebody with a full-time job, it shows you there isn’t just one route or one style of music.” | @therewasnosound

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