There’s a post on Leela Gilday’s Facebook page from a woman who had just bought a guitar for her daughter. The young girl’s immediate response was, “I’m going to sing just like Leela soon, Mom.” That’s the kind of reaction the Yellowknife singer-songwriter cherishes.
Gilday recognizes how she and other First Nations performers, such as her close friend, Tanya Tagaq, can inspire aboriginal youngsters, who seldom get to see “indigenous heroes” on TV or in social media.
She laughs warmly as she recounts an experience at a recent Aboriginal Days concert in Yellowknife. “We were playing a song, and there were 10 little girls who must have been seven or eight years old, lined up at the front of the stage. They all had their elbows on the stage and their chins on the stage, looking up at us in adoration,” she says. “It was the cutest moment. And I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s something really great, because here I am, and they can see themselves reflected in me.’ That’s a pretty powerful feeling.”
Gilday grew up in Edzo, “a tiny Dogrib community of less than 200 people” just outside the Northwest Territories capital. Her Dene mother and her non-aboriginal father met and fell in love when he was a 23-yearold musician and composer from London, Ontario, who had come North for a brief stay. After a few years of corresponding by letter, he moved to Edzo to be with her. On a visit to her family home in Deline, on the shores of Great Bear Lake, he asked Gilday’s grandfather for permission to marry his daughter. The older man agreed, on the condition that they remain in the North.
When asked where her own inspiration comes from, Gilday speaks of her parents. “They raised me in a way that fostered my own creativity, and I guess made me believe that I could really do anything, so they were my first sort of heroes.” It was her father who first suggested that eight-year-old Leela might want to perform a song at the Folk on the Rocks Music Festival, which was then a fairly new, local event. “I had to audition to play at the festival, so I went up and I sang my song and forgot almost all of the words, I was so incredibly nervous. I guess my cuteness factor paid off, because they still put me on stage,” she laughs.
Performing solo there, for the first time, with her Dad accompanying her on piano, was just something to do for fun. “I didn’t know that this would be my life path. I couldn’t see a trajectory at that point.” Part of that trajectory took her to the University of Alberta to study opera. While she loved the genre, she eventually realized something was missing. “I felt the material I was singing wasn’t really expressing a key part of who I was,” she says.
The music of long-dead European men didn’t ignite “that creative spark you have inside to express all of your identity and tell your stories.”
So Gilday started writing her own songs and taught herself to play guitar. “I sort of told myself it was just for fun, playing gigs here and there. I had every intention of continuing on; I was going to go to McGill and do my Masters.” Instead, she pursued songwriting, “because it expressed that part that I found lacking.” After 15 years of city life, Gilday returned to Yellowknife in 2009, but continues to perform elsewhere about two weeks out of every month.
Of her four CDs so far, she’s most proud of her latest, Heart of the People, which came out in October and is in contention for a Best Aboriginal Recording at the 2015 Juno Awards in Hamilton next month. ” I actually did almost all of the vocals live off the floor while we were recording the bed tracks, so this CD captures some really raw and honest sound for me,” she says. “I think it’s my best vocal performance, because I was right in the moment with the band, and that energy was there.”
Along with band members Jason Burnstick, Tony Raybould, and Scott Tucker, Gilday will be at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre on Friday, February 27, playing all the songs from Heart of the People, plus “some old favourites that I’ve played in the Yukon before,” she promises.
The concert begins at 7:00 p.m. Tickets are $25 for adults, $10 for seniors and youth, and free for those under four. Little elbows and chins are more than welcome.
For more information, visit www.kdcc.ca.