Arts·Governor General's Awards

How Florent Vollant helped build a 'tower of greatness' for Indigenous musicians

One childhood memory of seeing his band Kashtin in concert has stayed with musician Tara Williamson her whole life.

One childhood memory of seeing his band Kashtin in concert has stayed with Tara Williamson her whole life

Florent Vollant. (florentvollant.com)

Florent Vollant will receive the Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award at this year's Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. Watch the televised special celebrating the laureates on CBC Television and CBC Gem on November 26 at 7pm ET.

My Aunty Mary Jane used to drag me around to everything. I would come into the big city and she'd take me to protests where I learned to say No to Meech Lake! We'd bundle up and spend hours in the cold waiting for Santa Claus to come down Portage Avenue. And she was the one to take me to my first concert (Cheap Trick at the Red River Ex).

Her favourite events were the free events at the Forks. We'd meet up with some of her friends, most of whom didn't have kids, so they would all lavish attention on me while sneaking sips of beer from their brown bags and taking me to go get mini-donuts from the Market. A lot of those events blur together in my childhood memories. But one stands out from the others: the Kashtin concert.

Kashtin was made up of Claude McKenzie and Florent Vollant, two Innu men from northern Quebec. I recognized them from the covers of their cassette tapes that I would play at Aunty's. Their signature '90s rock band look was something I aspired to — jean jackets and cool hats and vests. And, since they had their own cassette and I recognized them and their songs, it was immediately clear to young Tara that I was in the presence of fame, celebrity and greatness. I was starstruck.

The other thing I remember was that they were Indigenous and that they were speaking in their own language. I would hear my language at home with my Kookoo, but I didn't know that not only did other people have other languages (I just thought all Indigenous people spoke "Indian") but also that they could write pop and rock songs and sing them. Onstage! To a huge crowd of people! Indigenous and non-Indigenous! It's only now that, looking back, I can say that Kashtin show was the first time I saw the Indigenous parts of myself reflected on any stage.

When I ask Aunty what it was about their music that really captured her attention, she pointed out that although she listened to a lot of Indigenous musicians, Kashtin were using their language and broke out of the genres of country and blues — corners of the music world where many Indigenous musicians were located in the '80s and '90s. She also remembers how their music made her feel: "It made me feel proud to be Indigenous. To hear their music was something to be proud of."

This year, Florent Vollant will be honoured with a Governor General's Lifetime Artistic Achievement Performing Arts Award for his work. In addition to being a performing and recording artist, Vollant co-founded the Innu Nikamu Festival for First Nations musicians and singers; he also established a recording studio in his home community of Maliotenam, Quebec, and is a mentor of Nikamu Mamuitun, a songwriting residency for Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth. As a trailblazer in the realm of Indigenous contemporary music, Vollant's contributions to the broader Indigenous arts community have helped to normalize an ethos of mentorship and support amongst and between Indigenous musicians — something that I have benefited from greatly in my own career and that I try to pay forward whenever I can.

Florent Vollant. (florentvollant.com)

When I imagine the shoulders I stand on — of all the Indigenous artists and musicians and people who make my work possible — I close my eyes and see a tower of greatness. Florent Vollant is part of that tower. It's a scary and vulnerable thing to write music and share it with the world, but it's much less scary knowing you're not the first one to bend a genre or incorporate your language or play with elements of traditional music. It's much less scary when you have a childhood memory of Indigeneity being something worth celebrating onstage and sharing with the world. I hope that Florent knows the kind of impact he's had on the Indigenous musical landscape — and particularly on that one kid in the crowd with a bag of mini-donuts, singing along.

Watch the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards laureate ceremony November 26 at 7pm ET on CBC Television and CBC Gem.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tara Williamson is a member of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation and was raised in Gaabishkigamaag (Swan Lake, Manitoba). Tara is a Research Fellow with the Yellowhead Institute and works with the Indigenous Law Research Unit at the University of Victoria.

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