First Peoples' Music

The Aboriginal people (FIRST NATIONS, INUIT, MÉTIS) who reside in what is now Canada have diverse cultural traditions that are reflected in the variety of their musical genres and styles. Aboriginal languages do not have a word for music, as music is generally conceived of as an integral, and not a separate, part of the daily life and spiritual beliefs of Canada's indigenous people. The diversity of Aboriginal life and music in Canada has been recognized by scholars who attempted to classify Nations according to "culture areas," which were also applied to music made by people in each area. Aboriginal people have their own distinct musical traditions, repertoire, and meanings. As well, genres of music have emerged that traverse Nation boundaries and are performed by Aboriginal musicians across North America. Some generalizations that can be made about First Peoples' music are that it is predominantly vocal music, with drums, rattles and flutes serving as common "traditional" instruments. As well, Aboriginal musicians have been influenced by non-Aboriginal music-making, often adopting other musical styles (such as country music and pop) and instruments (guitars, fiddles).

Traditional Music

Despite varying influences from non-Aboriginals, most indigenous groups in Canada have retained nation-specific musical traditions. Traditional music is often subdivided into social music and ceremonial music, a division that is paralleled with a public or private performance context. Social music primarily consists of songs that are accompanied by drums and rattles, and which may accompany stylized dances that are performed for gatherings and celebrations, some of which are closely tied to the traditions of a community. Ceremonial music, such as songs sung for sweat lodges, sun dances and Midewiwin ceremonies, is also primarily vocal music with percussive accompaniment, and certain songs are sung for specific parts of a ceremony and may only be performed in the context of that ceremony. Indigenous peoples are often very protective of their ceremonial music and take care to ensure that it is not performed in an improper context or for public release.

There are two sources for most songs in Aboriginal cultures: those that are created or composed by an individual, and those that are "received" by an individual in a dream or a vision. Songs are typically passed on from one person to the next through oral transmission, although accessible recording technology and the proliferation of commercially produced albums have changed the traditional means of song sharing and have accelerated the sharing of songs and traditions between indigenous groups.

Songs are often short, but they may be repeated a number of times during a performance. Singing style varies according to the singers and stylistic preferences of different Nations. Most songs have a single melody that an individual or a group sings simultaneously, and specific singing roles are often assigned to women and men. Songs may use words in an Aboriginal language or in English, they may make exclusive use of vocables (meaningless syllables), or they may use text and vocables in combination. Songs serve a specific purpose and have a particular meaning, and therefore tend to be performed in a particular context.

The drums, rattles and flutes that are used to accompany traditional music are often man-made, constructed from materials from the local environment, including seeds, tree parts, and animals parts. Instruments are considered animate objects and are therefore treated respectfully and often given gifts of medicinal plants. Likewise, during construction certain rituals may be performed on the instruments, and they are often decorated with symbolic images and colours.

Besides traditional music that is performed in First Peoples` communities for primarily Aboriginal audiences, powwows and Aboriginal festivals are gaining prominence throughout Canada. These events showcase indigenous music, dancing and traditions, and are open to the non-Aboriginal public. Celebrations may include common stylized music, dance and clothing, and they may also often showcase Nation-specific traditions of the hosting community. Powwows take place in communities most summer weekends, and participants travel a "powwow circuit" to take part in powwows and visit with family and friends. Powwows are imbued with symbolic meanings, and special ceremonies and dances are often held to commemorate individuals or to show respect for traditional customs. The music, dancing and dance outfits worn by powwow dancers borrowed heavily from the Plains Nations and continue to evolve, with new songs and new dance movements introduced each summer. The songs that are performed are typically sung by men, who sit around and strike in unison a large bass drum turned on its side, with women serving in a supportive capacity. The songs are short in length but are repeated four or more times, with overlapping entries that give a continuous sound from one song repetition to the next. Songs are often pitched at the upper extreme end of the singers' range, with an overall descending contour through the duration of the song. The drumming patterns are intricately related to the dance steps and are generally one of three patterns: an even steady beat, a long-short pattern, or a steady beat alternating with a drum tremolo pattern.

Contemporary Music

Many First Nations musicians have been influenced by mainstream music, creating their own songs in popular music traditions, often incorporating texts, narratives, instruments and singing to create unique, syncretic music. The recognition of Aboriginal popular music genres corresponded with the increased awareness of First Peoples` social issues by non-Aboriginals in the 1960s and 1970s. The music that has emerged from Aboriginal communities is as diverse as the people themselves and has a wide appeal to listeners of various musical genres.

Many Canadian Aboriginal artists and groups have received great acclaim in both the Aboriginal and the mainstream music markets. Numerous prominent Aboriginal singer-songwriters and performers have emerged, such as Buffy SAINTE MARIE, Kashtin, Tom JACKSON, Robbie ROBERTSON, Susan AGLUKARK, Fara, and many others who perform in every genre, including country and western, folk, rock, blues, and jazz. Social commentary may be a feature of Aboriginal popular music, as evident in the music of War Party, a rap group from Hobbema, Alberta, whose lyrics address life on the reserve from the perspective of Aboriginal youth. Similarly, many First Nations musicians have successful careers in the art music world, most notably award- winning conductor and activist John Kim BELL.

Institutions and Support

Beginning in the mid-1970s, various First Nations organizations in Canada experimented with communications technology and produced original Aboriginal programming. With support from within Aboriginal communities and audiences and government funding, First Peoples` radio stations were formed in communities throughout Canada, airing Aboriginal-produced programs that highlighted indigenous music and culture. Aboriginal-owned and operated radio stations, such as CKRZ 100.3 FM in Brantford, Ontario, produce programs that showcase First Nations musicians from the local community as well as artists from other regions in North America.

Further developments that affected indigenous music in Canada took place in the 1990s, with the creation of Aboriginal-owned and operated recording studios and music publications. Aboriginal recording studios were mandated to record, promote and distribute Aboriginal music, including Sweetgrass Records, Arbor Records and Sunshine Records, among others. These studios produce albums by First Nations musicians of various genres, including traditional and contemporary Aboriginal music, as well as Aboriginal popular music, rap, country and blues. Publications that address First Nations Canadian music include Aboriginal Voices, and many nation-specific or regional newspapers, such as Anishnabek News in Ontario, and Alberta Sweetgrass, frequently highlight the work of local musicians.

The vitality, importance and currency of First Peoples' music in Canada are highlighted in the Aboriginal Music Awards, held annually since 1999 as part of the Canadian Aboriginal Festival. An awards program that showcases the diverse contemporary music-making of Aboriginal people from across Canada, the Aboriginal Music Awards recognizes the variety of genres in which artists are performing, as well as the producers and designers of the recordings. Awards categories include Best Male Artist, Best Female Artist, as well as Best Rap or Hip Hop Album, Best Powwow Album (Traditional and Contemporary) and Best Folk Album.