Tomson Highway, Patricia Cano collaborate on Cree country album

For playwright Tomson Highway, country music took root at a young age, when he was growing up in the “the most beautiful place on earth” –  the sparse subarctic landscape where Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Nunavut meet.

Highway says his roots in country music run deep into his childhood

Artist Tomson Highway will be releasing 'Cree Country', a country album sung in Cree, his first language. (Submitted by Want & Able Arts Consulting)

For playwright Tomson Highway, country music took root at a young age, when he was growing up in the "the most beautiful place on earth" –  the sparse subarctic landscape where Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Nunavut meet.

"There was no electricity up there," Highway said. "We had no television, no radio, no internet, nothing. The only thing we had that was electronic was a little tiny transistor radio that my older sister listened to. It was about the size of a Samsung cell phone, and it operated with one battery only."

They hung that little radio high up in a tree, where it managed to catch signals from Nashville, Tennessee, the home of country music.  It was, Highway said, as if the trees were singing.

"Apparently back then, Nashville had the most powerful radio tower in North America and had the ability to send soundwaves out over the world," Highway said. "And so we heard all the songs, all the stars, Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Ernest Tubbs." 

LISTEN | Tomson Highway shares his latest project:
Tomson Highway is an award winning playwright, a classically trained pianist and a member of the Order of Canada. But his latest project is an album of Cree Country music. It's an album featuring his long-time collaborator Patricia Cano. She's a Peruvian-Canadian singer and actress from Sudbury and she sings every song on Cree Country in Cree. Jason D'Souza spoke with Patricia Cano and Tomson Highway about the project.
'Cree Country' features 12 tracks, sung in Cree by Sudbury's Patricia Cano. (Supplied by Want & Able Arts Consulting)

"We grew up with these people. We grew up with their songs," he said. "We soaked them up. It was the only recorded music we had. And we just fell in love with the music. It became part of us."

Highway is now releasing Cree Country, an album of country music that draws on the sounds he heard as a youngster. The major difference – these songs, although heavy with the country influence with their high, lonesome harmonies and stories of heartbreak, will be sung in Cree, Highway's first language. 

"It just came naturally," Highway said. "I mean, we all  make music with the way we speak. We all have a rhythm. So we are musicians, in that sense."

"All human language is music. English, French, or Cree…you put it all together, and you create a new kind of music."

Patricia Cano and Tomson Highway have worked together for years, having met in Sudbury over 30 years ago. (Supplied by Want & Able Arts Consulting)

Highway teamed up with another artist, longtime collaborator Patricia Cano, to handle the vocals on the album. And although Cree is not Cano's first language, she said Highway has been an immeasurable help to her.

"Right now, when Tomson writes these songs, I know how to place them," she said. "There are a few tricky sounds to make…but the way I wrap my head around it, is they have almost a Brazilian sound. It's very Brazilian Portuguese."

"It comes very easy for me, because I have the Brazilian Portuguese reference in my body. But really, it'll just be about doing each song justice," she said. 

The duo plans on launching Cree Country at the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto, May 23. 


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