Writing Across the Borders

An ambitious pan-Northern ensemble of seasoned musicians from all three territories will make its debut in Whitehorse next week as one of the performance highlights of the fifth annual Adäka Cultural Festival.

The New North Collective will bring together the songwriting and performing talents of four Yukoners, two residents of the Northwest Territories, and a throat singer from Nunavut.

In the words of Yellowknife bassist and spoken word artist Pat Braden, it is essentially a showcase of Northern talent that could eventually morph into a “fluid, evolving kind of show” that would incorporate different artists from time to time.

The other NWT performer is award-winning singer-songwriter Digawolf, originally from the small Tlicho community of Behchoko (Rae-Edzo), but now living in Yellowknife. In 2005, he was named best male artist of the year at the Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards.

Yukon vocalist Diyet, from Burwash Landing, is credited with providing the musical vision for the project. Classically trained in opera, she is best known as an alternative folk artist and prolific songwriter. Her husband, Robert Van Lieshout, is the ensemble’s percussionist.

The other two Yukoners are versatile pianist-songwriter Graeme Peters, a founding member of Whitehorse rock group Speed Control, and multi-instrumentalist Bob Hamilton. A longtime music producer, Hamilton recently opened a guitar-repair shop in Whitehorse with his son. The collective’s seventh member is throat singer Sylvia Clouthier, who lives in Iqaluit. Although she won’t be in Whitehorse for the Adäka appearance, her music will be featured on some of the songs. And she will definitely be there in person when the group performs at the Parapan Am Games in Toronto in early August. Rather than performing pieces written by individual members, the group writes its musical fare collectively, based on ideas brought forward by different artists. This involves “getting together and writing and building the show right from the ground up,” Braden explains. “It’s going to be really exciting to have our first gig [at Adäka].” Braden himself is no stranger to the Yukon, having performed here several times before.

A Saskatchewan native whose family moved to the NWT when he was a child in the early 1960s, Braden started his musical career as a bassist playing as many as six gigs a week in Yellowknife clubs and bars while he was still in high school. “Living in a small town, you get away with a lot of stuff,” he laughs. After studying music for three years at what was then Grant MacEwan Community College in Edmonton, he spent some time in Vancouver before returning to Yellowknife in the mid 1980s. In the late 1990s, those sixnighters started to dry up and Braden considered giving up playing bass altogether. By then, however, he had stumbled across an article in Guitar Player magazine about a new instrument called the Chapman Stick. “As timing would have it, my firstborn came along when we were down in Arizona, and I just took a quick trip into Los Angeles and went to the guy’s house that makes them and picked one up,” he says. As he began to master the instrument — which resembles a much longer, wider guitar fretboard and has as many as 12 individually tuned strings — he realized its potential for accompanying the spoken-word performances he was moving toward. “I wanted to be able to play sort of a background textural chord progression, or kind of sound, and keep that going musically, without looping, without electronics, but just be able to have the music flexible enough that the story could continue,” he says. Nowadays, Braden is known as much for his stories about life in the North and the characters he has encountered over the years as he is for his music.

That storytelling side of things — and the distinctive instrument he uses with it — will also be on display at Adäka, at a presentation of storytelling “in the round” at 7:00 p.m. on Monday, June 29 at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre.

Called “Stories from the Kitchen Table”, the event will also feature Yukon storytellers Sharon Shorty, Mida Donnessey, Selena Pye, and Daniel Tlen, as well as Clarissa Rizal, from Alaska. Admission is by donation.

The New North Collective’s world debut will be on the same stage on Tuesday, June 30, beginning at 7:00 p.m. Tickets are $20, or $10 for elders and youth.

The full schedule of festival events can be found online at adakafestival.ca.

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