British Columbia

Cree cellist and composer showcases Orchestral Powwow in Vancouver

Cris Derksen will be performing her unique blend of Indigenous powwow songs and classical orchestra music at the Vancouver PuSh festival.

Cris Derksen's album combines traditional powwow beats and classical music

Cellist and composer Cris Derksen will be playing her unique blend of powwow songs and classical music at this year's PuSh festival in Vancouver. (RedWorks)

Cree cellist and composer Cris Derksen says Canada needs more of the music she makes.

A UBC graduate and former Vancouver resident, Derksen is performing music from her album Orchestral Powwow, the first album to showcase the unique music genre Derksen created, at Vancouver's PuSh Festival.

Her music combines traditional Indigenous songs with an orchestral score.

"With this project I went back to my roots as a classical trained human but also as an Indigenous human," said Derksen in a conversation during CBC's North by Northwest.

Classical music around powwow

When Derksen was first creating the album she worked closely with the record label Tribal Spirit Music, the label behind Canadian group A Tribe Called Red

After establishing a relationship with the label, they allowed her to use their extensive library of Indigenous music for her album.

However unlike A Tribe Called Red, which mixes powwow songs with dance beats, Derksen used the songs in their entirety and composed classical music around them.

The result is an album of atmospheric scores unlike anything else.

Listen to the music of Orchestral Powwow:

Derksen says the powwow songs are new, but were written in adherence with traditional powwow music forms. Her small orchestra paired with the powwow groups Northern Voice, Black Bear, and the Chippewa Travellers.

"These powwow groups are alive and working and work all summer long on the powwow trail," said Derksen. "The songs sound old, but they're still being made today."

Derksen said in the classical music scene, there is a desire to bring more Indigenous songs to the genre. However often Aboriginal artists aren't included in the composition process.

"What often is the case, is that a mostly-white composer will be commissioned and they will work with an elder," she said. "Which is one way of creation, but I think to be fully inclusive we need to be working with Indigenous artists."

An orchestra with no conductor

For Derksen, Orchestral Powwow was a way for her to put Indigenous artists front and centre and allow them "to be the stars."

In keeping with that sentiment, Derksen's orchestra performs without a conductor.

Instead the European classical players follow the beat of the powwow drum — a practice she said can be used a metaphor for Canada's relationship with Indigenous people as a whole.

"That's what Canada needs to do a little bit more," she said. "Actually follow and listen and work together, as opposed to imposing what they think Indigenous art or what Indigenous people are."

Derksen plays the PuSh festival Feb. 4.

With files from North by Northwest