Aysanabee's pandemic phone calls with his grandfather inspired his debut album

Nearly every day during the first year of the pandemic, Oji-Cree artist Aysanabee spoke on the phone with his grandfather. Those conversations inspired his debut album, Watin.

The album Watin is named after his grandfather, and features both their voices

Oji-Cree artist Aysanabee released his debut album Watin in November 2022. It's named after his grandfather, and based on phone calls the two had in the first year of the pandemic. (Jen Squires)

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Evan Pang made sure to check in with his grandfather in Thunder Bay.

"It was important for me to record some of this, because not only were there outbreaks happening, but his health wasn't so good at the time," he said.

But soon, those conversations became deeper, uncovering family stories and setting Pang on a new journey of personal reclamation. So, with his grandfather's blessing, he started recording their chats.

"We spent the first year kind of getting to know each other in a way that we never had before," the Toronto-based musician told Unreserved host Rosanna Deerchild. "I basically spent the first year of the pandemic interviewing my grandfather."

A lot has changed since then. Pang now goes by Aysanabee, after reclaiming his family's name. He left his career in journalism to become a musician. He's so far performed at nearly 100 shows and festivals, and signed with Ishkōdé Records, an Indigenous, women-led record label.

Watin Aysanabee, grandfather of musician Aysanabee. (Chad Kirvan)

And just this week he launched his debut album, Watin. It's named after his grandfather and includes snippets of their recorded phone calls, effectively weaving their stories together into a unique 19-track lyrical narrative.

"I kind of had this urgency to write down something, so at least there's something there. So much of our history kind of gets lost when our elders move on," said Aysanabee.

A 'journey of reconnecting'

Aysanabee is Oji-Cree, Sucker Clan of the Sandy Lake First Nation in northern Ontario, but he moved off the reserve at only three years old. He grew up in several northern towns in Ontario and Manitoba before settling in Kaministiquia, a small community near Thunder Bay, Ont.

He taught himself how to play the guitar as a boy because his family lived off-grid and there wasn't much else to do at home, he said. He recalls his first performance in front of an audience was in his backyard, inside his grandfather's Winnebago. The audience: a family of cats.

Aysanabee's mother gave him the last name Pang, a name that "doesn't have any connection to anyone," because she thought he would be able to find work more easily with a non-Indigenous name.

It echoed his grandfather's story, who was renamed from Watin to "Walter" when he was forced to attend McIntosh Residential School in northwestern Ontario. It's the basis of the album's last song, Nomads.

Taking back the name Aysanabee became an important part of his "journey of reconnecting" to his roots.

WATCH: The music video for Nomads: 

In their conversations, Watin told stories about his time in residential school. He and his peers would speak in their languages, despite the threats from school staff, to remember their Indigenous identities.

"Obviously he carries a lot more, but it's kind of being able to share that burden a bit, and to ... get to know each other on a deeper level," Aysanabee said.

One of the most emotional memories forms the basis of the album's first song, Seeseepano, his great-grandfather's name.

"I was asking [my grandfather] what his father's name meant, and he didn't know," Aysanabee recalled.

"That really struck me: something as simple as ... a kid not knowing what his father's name meant, and kind of just having that taken away."

Painting of an elderly man wearing glasses and a colourful coat and fur hat.
Cover art for Watin, Aysanabee's debut album, painted by Montina Hussey. (Montina Hussey)

Aysanabee wanted his album Watin to be about more than just painful stories of the past, however.

Another song, River, is based on the story of when his grandfather and grandmother met while at McIntosh Residential School. Their families wanted them to each return to their home communities rather than get married. Instead, they eloped, and started a new life together.

"I really kind of wanted to showcase, yeah, here's a really terrible thing that's happening to a person. But here's this person kind of rising up, rising to the occasion in this moment as a child," Aysanabee said.

Rising star

Aysanabee signed with Ishkōdé Records in 2021, and is quickly becoming a rising star.

The release of his debut album comes as a wave of Indigenous performers break into the mainstream entertainment spotlight in a way not seen before.

Jeremy Dutcher called it "an Indigenous renaissance" when he won the Polaris Prize in 2018.

Aysanabee has mixed feelings about it.

"Part of me feels almost kind of guilty, because it's not at all like the [level of] talent has changed from now to 10 years ago," he said. "It's just people are paying attention now, and more people are starting to care."

A man plays a guitar and sings in front of a microphone outside in a park.
Aysanabee performs at the Unity Jam Concert to commemorate the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation at Dufferin Grove Park in Toronto on Sept. 30, 2021. (Evan Buhler/The Canadian Press)

Aysanabee still regularly talks to his grandfather, who he says is "thrilled" for his success as a musical artist.

"The workers at the long-term care home are like, 'Aysanabee? I [saw] your name at the Wake the Giant Music Festival.' And he's like, really proud of me," he said.

"He's really happy that we're kind of able to do the things that we wanted to — and not just survive, but to succeed and thrive in these spaces as ourselves."

Produced by Shyloe Fagan.

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