When Whitehorse musicians Kate Weekes and Grant Simpson attended the Ontario Council of Folk Festivals this past fall, they were amazed and touched by a screening of A Walk In My Dream, about harmonica virtuoso Mike Stevens. They have been instrumental in bringing the film to Whitehorse, showing tomorrow at the Old Fire Hall.
Mike Stevens is a Sarnia, Ontario musician, who holds the distinction of being the only harmonica player to ever appear on the famed Grand Ol’ Opry country music show more than three-hundred times and last appeared in the Yukon at the 2008 Atlin Arts And Music Festival.
Stevens is also the founder of ArtsCan Circle, a unique program that links creative artists with indigenous youth at risk in isolated northern communities for musical and arts workshops.
In 2010 alone, the organization sent more than 40 volunteer team members on 10 separate trips to five northern towns with names like Pikangikum and Sheshatsiu, engaging some 1,500 children and youth in the workshops.
An ArtsCan Circle volunteer recently described the experience of a visit last spring,
“Our trip to Pikangikum really opened our eyes to the major issues so many Aboriginal people face right here in our own backyards. We will cherish the memories of the little boys who looked on in wonder, as a simple piece of paper became an origami crane. Mostly, we will always remain proud of the unruly grade four class tamed by the power of ukuleles and sing-alongs. Have no doubt that ArtsCan is making a difference, one note or paint stroke at a time.”
Stevens’ successful musical career took an unexpected turn 10 years ago, when he was on a concert tour of far northern military bases that included Goose Bay, Labrador. He found himself face-to-face with a group of Innu youth from the village of Sheshtshui nearby, who were sniffing gasoline fumes.
He took the time to stand around their bonfire with them while they sniffed, talking to them and playing his harmonica. The person who had driven Stevens to the village took some photos and a video of Stevens and the group and sent the pictures and footage to the CBC Radio show “As It Happens.”
Stevens returned from a subsequent European tour shortly after, only to find his home phone clogged with messages from people asking how they could help these kids. It struck him that if they had musical instruments to play, it might help their self-esteem and give them a fighting chance in life. On his next trip north, he brought with him lots of harmonicas, which he distributed to the youth who greeted him and his instruments with wild enthusiasm. Thus was ArtsCan Circle was born.
Jonathan Torrens, who played J-Roc on the inimitable “Trailer Park Boys” TV show, met Stevens while the two were both participating in a northern swing of the Peter Gzowski Invitational Golf Tournament. When he learned of the harmonica player’s work with the Innu kids, Torrens became determined to capture Stevens’ story on film. His initiative had been preceded some years before by Stevens’ fellow Sarnia citizen Brian White and his biographical film, Harmonica Crossing.
Stevens has been named Entertainer of the Year at the Central Canadian Bluegrass Awards five years in a row, and has performed throughout Europe and Asia, where his powerful command of the harmonica has garnered rave reviews.
With sponsorship from Music Yukon, Jazz Yukon and ArtsCan Circle, Simpson, Weekes and fellow musician Steve Slade, himself no slouch on harmonica, will host a special showing of the film at the Old Fire Hall on Friday, Dec. 7 at 7 p.m., with admission by donation. Part of the proceeds will go towards ArtsCan’s continuing work.