For seven years, Digging Roots’ lead guitarist, Raven Kanatakta could not pick up an instrument.
“My arms and hands weren’t working,” he says. “I was worried.”
In 1996, halfway through his degree in jazz composition and performance at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Kanatakta developed arthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome in his hands. He could still compose and experiment with musical ideas, but he couldn’t play.
He saw about 40 doctors and specialists, and opted for alternative techniques such as acupuncture, trying to get the feeling back, but without results.
After completing his degree, he moved back from his then-home in Ottawa, to Barrie, Ontario, and he sought out a traditional healer.
The healer told Kanatakta to grab a shovel and join him on a walk into the bush. They reached a swamp and the healer pointed at a cattail-like plant. He sent Kanatakta into the swamp, shovel in-hand, until mud reached halfway up his belly.
“He was like, ‘Go in and pick that plant. Dig it up. Dig it from the root,'” says Kanatakta.
Kanatakta dug about seven plants and their roots, and laid gifts of tobacco beside the plants as an exchange for life. Then the healer showed him how to make a tea.
After a week, Kanatakta picked up his guitar again. A month later, he was cured.
“That’s part of where the name Digging Roots came from,” he says. “I quit my day job and I was like ‘Yeah! I am going to play music again!'”
Digging Roots was established around 2004, though Kanatakta and ShoShona Kish (vocal, guitar and percussion), have played and written songs together since the ’90s.
At home in Barrie, Kanatakta soaks up a moment of down time before the band heads to Whitehorse to perform as the headline act at the Blue Feather Music Festival on November 5 at the Yukon Arts Centre.
This will be their first time to the festival and Kanatakta is enthusiastic, as he is when he speaks about any gig.
He admits this enthusiasm is something he only recently learned to curb.
“[Coming back] I would break three or four strings in a set,” he says, “I think my body was so excited I was making up for lost time in a sense. Now I’ve learned to chill and let it ride. I play with the same energy, but I don’t have to hit the strings nearly as hard… I feel that I don’t have to catch up anymore.”
The band has released two albums, seeds in 2006, and WE ARE, co-produced by innovator Kinne Starr, in 2009.
Aggressive touring has taken Digging Roots across Canada, the US, Mexico and Australia. In 2010, they also picked up a Juno for Best Aboriginal Album.
This year, the band added Norway to its map. They plan to return in March to finish a feature film in collaboration with Sami (Nordic aboriginal) folk musicians.
On the previous trip, Digging Roots discovered yoiking, or chanting, traditionally used by the Sami people to herd reindeer on the tundra. The film, scheduled for release sometime in 2012, looks at the musical relationship of Digging Roots with the Sami group; their similarities and differences.
The universal language of music, as a form of non-verbal communication and unity, is something Kanatakta explores on every tour.
“Sometimes [language] is really a blockade, but other times it doesn’t matter at all,” he says. He exemplifies a time he was in France, playing with a musician he couldn’t speak with, but they played music together for hours.
“There’s different ways of connecting people.”
Growing up on small a reserve in Winneway, Quebec, Kanatakta learned how to play “old country music”. When he lived in Boston from 1994 to 1998, he played blues and jazz.
With influences from Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Bob Marley, Digging Roots has become a collage of musical tastes and personal experiences – not just of Kanatakta, but all five members of the band.
“We’ve mixed all [these] things together,” says Kanatakta. “People try to figure out what we do all the time and it’s really difficult for them because it depends what kind of musicians we are travelling with, what we are working on or what we are doing.”
He says Whitehorse should expect the powerhouse, reggae-influenced beats of the band’s new drummer, Paul Brennan, a notable past member of Canadian rock bands Big Sugar and Odds.
A few songs from upcoming albums (a “blues-Black Keys” album and a “love-songs-on-a-uke” album) are also planned.
“I’m always changing it up or adding different things to [songs],” says Kanatakta. “You might play the same song the same way for two years and then it will change, because it’s been on the road – music is alive like that.”