Florent Vollant’s first exposure to music was in his family’s cabin on a trapline in Labrador.
After a successful caribou hunt, the family would celebrate with traditional songs and dances, in the Innu tradition of the makushan, or pow wow.
“I was four or five years old the first time I remember the sound of the drum, and then I saw my family very happy and proud,” he says. “Now when I do music, I think it’s the kind of spirit I want to recreate.”
When Vollant was seven, the family relocated to the Maliotenam reserve, on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River near Sept-îles, Québec. It’s been his home for 48 years.
By the early 1980s, Vollant was playing guitar in a band with bassist Claude McKenzie.
“We did it a few years as back-up,” Vollant explains by phone in an accent heavily-flavoured by Innu-aimun and French.
“But that band they had too many chiefs and not enough Indians, and then we split. It was too hard.”
Not long after the break-up, a local club invited him and McKenzie to perform, but their fledgling folk-rock duo had no name.
“The same day, I heard some elders talking about a tornado, and I heard the word “kashtin”. It’s not the kind of word that you heard a lot, but the elders told me it’s powerful,” Vollant explains.
“When Claude asked me (about the band’s name), I said, ‘Tell them it’s called Kashtin.’”
That was 1984. Little did Vollant or McKenzie know that five years later their Innu-language songs hit the big time at home and abroad.
The first of Kashtin’s three albums came out in 1989. It soon went double platinum in Canada, with hits such as “E Uassiuian” and “Tshinanu”. Following a European tour the next year, Kashtin hit the Top 10 in France.
After two more albums – Innu in 1991 (which included their biggest Canadian single, “Ishkuess”), and Akua Tuta in 1994 — the pair split, but they still perform occasional concerts together.
Vollant understands Kashtin’s role in bringing aboriginal music to widespread public attention.
“We can be proud, I guess, me and Claude. We left very nice tracks,” he says.
“If some young musicians want to follow it, it could be nice. But we don’t want another Kashtin, you know, we need something different.”
Five years on the road also left Vollant ready for something different.
“It was too strong for me, and it was hard for my family, too.”
He decided to take a year or so off.
“It was very quiet time for me, and at that time it was what I needed,” he says.
“Then one day I was there just thinking I have some time, no rush, maybe I can build something, you know. And if I build something, it’s going to be a recording studio.”
With help from some friends, he did build a studio near his home, where he has recorded traditional music with elders, as well as school groups and bands from the Maliotenam area, as well as Labrador.
As a singer-songwriter, he has released three solo albums. He won a Juno award for Aboriginal Recording of the Year in 2001 for his Innu-language album of Christmas songs, Nipaiamianan.
This summer he hopes to finish a fourth record called Puamuna (Innu for “Dreams”).
His first album since Eku Mamu in 2009, it will include a reprise of Willie Dunn’s “Son of the Sun”, which Kashtin helped popularize on Innu.
In the meantime, live performances keep Vollant busy. In just over a week this month alone, he sang at a major festival In Switzerland and at National Aboriginal Day celebrations in Val-d’Or, Québec.
“I just want to be on stage and share my music, share my heritage, and have a good time,” he says.
In a way, this weekend’s appearance at the Adäka Cultural Festival marks a
return to his roots on that Labrador trapline.
“I’m a makushan-maker. That’s what I want to be. It means make people dream and sing and dance, and then we’re a part of the pride,” he says.
“In my Innu family, when you can make people dance, you’re great.”
Florent Vollant performs Saturday, June 28 in the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre longhouse. Diyet and Friends will open the show at 7:00 p.m. Tickets are $20 for adults, $10 for elders and youth.