When Buffy Sainte-Marie first hit the music scene in 1964 with her debut album It’s My Way, most people hadn’t seen a First Nations person play contemporary music. But there was an entire music scene happening in the indigenous community that until now had gone largely unnoticed.
A new two CD collection called Native North America Vol. 1 is drawing a lot of attention to the obscure recordings of indigenous artists from the 60s, 70s, and 80s, from across Canada and the northern United States.
'The album rings with brilliant garage-rock fuzz, pedal steel-laced heartache, [and] singer-songwriter Earth love.' - Rolling Stone
“It’s fantastic to be able to share these recordings,” Kevin Howes, music journalist and DJ, told the CBC. He added 12 of the 34 songs on Native North America Vol. 1 were recorded by the CBC.
The Vancouver-based Howes was inspired by local music lover Ty Scammell, who sold obscure records out of a Vancouver flea market. “He got me on the path for looking for Canadian music and learning about the roots of this country,” said Howes, who has been collecting the indigenous recordings for more than a decade.
Some of the music on the album is so rare that only a handful of 45s were pressed and then only distributed to northern CBC locations for play. The first known Inuit rock band Sugluk is a prime example of this. Made up of four teenage boys from Salluit, QC, Howes spent hours trying to track down any members of the original group. He finally found guitarist Tayara Papigatuk by leaving a message with the local radio station in Cape Dorset where Papigatuk now lives to tell him about the project.
The album features interviews with artists who are still living and archival photographs. Like other artists in the same musical genres of rock, folk and country, these First Nations, Métis and Inuit musicians were inspired by the Beatles and Rolling Stones, said Howes.
“And (they) brought their own stories and culture into the mix and created a sound that I think is pretty unique,” he said.
Willie Mitchell, who let his music career wane while trying to make a living with other work, has three songs on the new album. He said he feels accomplished now that the collection has been reviewed by Rolling Stone. The magazine reported that “the album rings with brilliant garage-rock fuzz, pedal steel-laced heartache, [and] singer-songwriter Earth love.”
Several artists are still active today. The album includes Anaanaga by former CBC North broadcaster William Tagoona, who still plays concerts across the North from his home base in Kuujjuaq.
Willie Thrasher is a busker in Nanaimo, B.C., and has said that offers are starting to come in for better paying gigs because of the renewed interest in this lost era of indigenous music history.
“To know that people are out there listening to the music and enjoying it … I hope they will actually go out and buy it, as it will help the artists out and raise awareness of the music and culture,” said Howes, adding the album also comes in a triple vinyl box set.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Willie Thrasher and Willy Mitchell in the photo captions.Dec 09, 2014 12:48 PM ET