Music, storytelling, comedy, television, radio – Art Napoleon has done it all.
This media Renaissance man brings his blend of contemporary sounds and traditional rhythms – and his sense of humour – to Whitehorse for the Aboriginal Day celebration on June 21.
Raised in rural northern British Columbia by his Cree grandparents, Napoleon uses the songs he writes and performs to bridge modern issues and ancient culture.
“Some call it bush country blues,” he says, “but that’s just one stream of it. I try to incorporate lots of elements into the music; you’ll hear some chanting and some traditional rhythms like the round dance. Half of my songs are written and performed in Cree.”
Because his music doesn’t fit one specific genre, Napoleon says he doesn’t expect it to be played on commercial radios stations.
“It’s the alternative and college stations that play my music. If I can get a handful of decent reviews, that’s all I really hope for.”
Napoleon’s live audiences have ranged from Canada’s Governor General to children in isolated northern communities. He recently finished a year-long European tour, and once toured with the ground-breaking Saskatchewan singer-songwriter, Buffy Ste. Marie.
“She’s definitely an influence, though she uses a full band whereas I go for more of a rootsy, country kind of feel. But we deal with the same topics and we both incorporate traditional music into ours.”
Napoleon believes that music, as a form of artistic expression, can benefit virtually any audience.
“Basically, as a singer-songwriter, you are a storyteller. I also do just plain storytelling, but I think the songs add another element to that. Certain lyrics, expressed with a melody, can hit people in a way that just the words of the story wouldn’t.”
Some of his biggest rewards come from working with kids in rural communities.
“These kids don’t get to see a lot, so seeing that these kids can be inspired through even just a solo performance, that’s really rewarding,” he says.
“Often I’m playing for Kindergarten through Grade 12, plus their teachers, so it’s especially rewarding when I can keep everyone’s attention and get many of them up and participating. Even the teenagers who are too cool for it.”
That response, he says, is the main reason he does what he does.
“It’s definitely not for the money, although that’s nice,” he says. “It’s just to tell the story and to connect with the audience, to know that my music is moving and inspiring people.”
Although his latest CD, Creeland Covers, met with a “fairly good” reception when it came out last October, Napoleon takes a realistic view toward the pitfalls of the music industry.
“Most musicians end up needing to have day or part-time jobs. I’m lucky in that I get to make my living mostly as an artist in a field that I love.”
While his musical output has been nominated for numerous awards (www.artnapoleon.ca), Napoleon has also maintained a strong presence on both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal media, with performances ranging from concerts to comedy sketches and voice-overs.
He has hosted and acted on shows such as Down2Earth and children’s program Tiga Talk, and was nominated for a 2009 Leo award for his work as host of CHUM TV’s The New Canoe.
“I do lots of TV work these days,” Napoleon says. “All of July will be taken up with acting; I play a dad on an original, Sesame Street-style kids’ show. I would call my work a three-quarter time job, it keeps me on the road.”
Napoleon’s appearance next week as headliner at the Aboriginal Day celebration will not be his first visit to Whitehorse. He has done schools tours here before, and about two years ago he played with Digging Roots and Rob Hunter.
“It was wonderful. It was a big theatre at least three-quarters full; a very decent show, it was a lot of fun to do,” he says.
Besides the chance to perform with Hunter and other local musicians again, the June 21 concert will feature a rare collaboration with another of his favourite artists – his own daughter, Niska Napoleon.
“She does her own singer show, is also in a ska/reggae band and performs with a lot of other artists,” adding that they will collaborate on a “handful” of numbers here.
“When she was a little girl, we played together a little more often, so we have not performed together in quite a while. It may be more of a case of me backing her up this time,” he laughs.
Napoleon says he looks forward to sharing his music, stories and Aboriginal humour with the Yukon audience.
“I try to create an atmosphere conducive to camaraderie and culture – that’s what I like to bring in,” he says.
“There’s nothing more rewarding than when people tell me how a certain song helped them through a rough patch. That is the ultimate reward as far as I’m concerned; that’s what keeps me working.”
Art and Niska Napoleon will play from 4:15 to 5 pm on June 21. More information about Napoleon and his work can be found on his website, www.artnapoleon.com.
Willow Gamberg is a former What’s Up Yukon intern who writes about music and other arts-related topics.