Indigenous musicians, Ottawa high school choirs join voices

Choirs from six Ottawa high schools will come together with Indigenous musicians Thursday night for a special performance of songs from First Nations, Métis, and Inuit cultures.

Songs from Turtle Island will see 200 local students perform Indigenous music

Nepean High School music teacher Lee Carter (left) was inspired to organize the Songs from Turtle Island event after hearing a recording of a First Nations singer performing with a choir. (Waubgeshig Rice/CBC)

Choirs from six Ottawa high schools will come together with Indigenous musicians Thursday night for a special performance of songs from First Nations, Métis, and Inuit cultures.

Approximately 200 student singers will join the Bear Nation Drum Group, hoop dancer Theland Kicknosway, Inuit throat singers Samantha Metcalfe and Cailyn Degrandpre, and other performers for Songs from Turtle Island — a wide-ranging display of music from Indigenous communities.

The performance is being held at Paroisse Saint-Francois d'Assise in Hintonburg. 

"It's sort of a combination of classical choir stuff, as well as First Nations people doing their own traditional performances and telling us about them," said Nepean High School music teacher Lee Carter, who helped organize the event.

Grade 9 students from Nepean High School will join choirs from five other OCDSB schools and Indigenous musicians for a special event Thursday night called Songs from Turtle Island. (Waubgeshig Rice/CBC)

'It sounded really cool'

The idea first took shape a couple of years ago when one of Carter's students shared a recording with him of Cree singer Randy Wood performing with the Vancouver Peace Choir.

"I thought it sounded really cool, and also what an awesome opportunity for us to learn more about First Nation, Métis, and Inuit culture by performing it together," he said.

So he reached out to other schools and to local Indigenous singers — including an Ottawa women's hand drum collective — to teach students traditional songs.

The Songs from Turtle Island project hits close to home for Melanie Brochu (centre), a Grade 9 student at Nepean High School who has Maliseet roots. (Waubgeshig Rice/CBC)

The project has hit close to home for Grade 9 Nepean High School student Melanie Brochu, whose grandmother is Maliseet, originally from New Brunswick.

"That means a lot because I do have family out east, and it means a lot that people are recognizing what these people are going through, and how they're living, and it isn't just this blur in society anymore," she said following choir practice.

"It's paying tribute to the peoples that aren't always first priority," she added. "It's really hitting home because we don't learn as much about Indigenous peoples and what happened to them and where they are now."

'Better than just a history book'

Grade 9 student Clara Austrins said the whole experience has been eye-opening, particularly when it comes to how some songs explore the Indigenous experience in Canadian history and colonization.

"It's really important, because art sometimes conveys a message better than just a history book — like a textbook — so I think it's really great that we're learning this through a different way of communication, and that other people can learn this too," she said.

Students have been rehearsing songs by Indigenous composers like 'Iroquois Lullaby' for the last two months. (Waubgeshig Rice/CBC)

Student Clara Marty, meanwhile, said she appreciated how the experience has expanded her musical horizons. 

"It's really fun," she said. "I've gotten to learn a lot about the First Nation culture, and I've just gotten to see a different side of music."

Those are some of the fundamental lessons Carter wanted his students to take away from this experience.

"That was the hope, that through the music, we would learn more about each other and about these cultures that maybe are ...they're right at home, but they're foreign at the same time," he said.

Student choirs from Bell High School, Brookfield High School, Canterbury High School, Gloucester High School, and Glebe Collegiate Institute will also be part of Thursday night's performance.

Doors open at 7 p.m., with the show getting underway at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20, and the show is free for children under 12.

Music teacher Lee Carter said the hope was for students to learn more about Indigenous cultures and history. (Waubgeshig Rice/CBC)