Edmonton·Video

Meet the Mustangz: Maskwacis drummer boys finish big in virtual powwow contest

Five preteen boys with connections to Maskwacis are receiving a lot of attention for the drumming and singing video they entered in an online powwow competition.

'These boys have been singing since they were, I believe, babies,' says member's dad

The Mustangz, clockwise from left: Ryan Deschamps-Cross, Tziyon Simon, Jerome Montour, Nathaniel Green and Nathan Littlechild. Jr. (Darren Simon)

It's a sound that gives you chills and makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. You're suddenly filled with the urge to either join a battle or run in fear.

Even more astonishing is the fact that the sound is from a group of five boys aged 12 and under.

They call themselves the Mustangz. They come from different bands and parts of North America — one from as far away as Flagstaff, Ariz. — but they all have a connection to Maskwacis, Alta., 100 kilometres south of Edmonton.

That's where they meet to practice their traditional drumming and singing. Now, with COVID-19 limiting travel and gatherings, it's also become a place where they perform.

A video of one of those performances is garnering a lot of attention online.

"I believe it takes a lot of practice to become good at something you love," Darren Simon, the father of one of the young musicians, told CBC News in an interview this week.

"These boys have been singing since they were, I believe, babies."

Indigenous youth drumming 2:22

The Mustangz are Ryan Deschamps-Cross, Tziyon Simon, Jerome Montour,  Nathaniel Green and Nathan Littlechild, Jr. 

In their video, the five boys sit in a circle with one large drum between them. They all begin striking the drum in unison before a single haunting voice cries out and is met by the voices of the other boys.

The video was created as an entry into the Summer Solstice Indigenous Festival, which normally takes place in Ottawa each year.

This year the festival partnered with an organization called Social Distance Powwow, which helped take the events online, including the singing and drumming competitions.

Interest in the Social Distance Powwow Facebook group has been overwhelming, with nearly 200,000 members from across North America joining since it was created in mid-March.

Each member of the Facebook group was allowed to vote for their favourite performer and the Mustangz, who were the youngest entry into the singing group category, proved to be a favourite. They finished second overall, losing only to a well-established and award winning group.

This group has created a Facebook page where powwow vendors, artists and competitors from across North America can still share their creations and performances despite the pandemic. (Social Distance Powwow / Facebook)

One of the members of the Mustangz, 10-year-old Tziyon Simon, is a boy of few words until you put a drumstick in his hands and surround him with his friends. But he doesn't hesitate when asked why he likes doing it.

"Making people feel good," he said.

Darren Simon, Tziyon's dad, coaches the group informally. He's beaming with pride over the boys' success in the competition.

"I'm always in amazement of our kids and they went above and beyond my expectations," he said.

The Mustangz make it look easy in the video but it took a lot of work to get to that point.

Simon said he's thrilled to see the boys embracing traditional music.

"I think it's important to learn our culture at a young age to find out who they are."

Whitney Rencountre, one of the founders of Social Distance Powwow, spoke to CBC from his home in Rapid City, S.D.

The Mustangz were crowd-pleasers, Rencountre said.

"They really were sounding fantastic," he said.

"They got a lot of positive feedback and a lot of votes, making it into the finals and the top five of the singing groups, and rightfully so."

The group was up against some tough competition. They were only beaten by Cree Confederation, a champion drum band that was formed before the boys were born.

"The powwow world was paying attention and watching this last weekend when this competition was taking place," Rencountre said.

"For these guys to have stepped up to the plate and sound like professionals, and brought the spirit of song and dance at a time we needed it most, their future is bright."

Back in Maskwacis, Darren Simon said the requests are already starting to pour in for more performances.

"It's a little bit overwhelming now that the word is out there," he said. "Now they're being asked by other Facebook groups to participate and it's kind of blowing up."

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