Musical encounter in remote countryside: Kent Nagano and the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal visit the First Nations’ communities of Quebec.
First they just smile. Then the laughter begins to bubble up; a little further along my row, too. The grandparents right at the end start it off. Then their infectious hilarity sets off the grandchildren, one after the next. The Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal (OSM) is visiting: the musicians have traveled with their famous conductor, Kent Nagano, to the heart of Quebec, to the First Nation settlements. Most of the people here have never seen an orchestra before, probably not even heard one. But their amazement soon gives way to simple pleasure – and laughter.
The reason: The orchestra hasn’t just brought along classics like Beethoven. No, an opera, Chaakapesh, was composed especially for this trip, and it’s written in the First Nation language Cree. It’s a lush, poetic language in which the articles do not define masculine or feminine, but animate or inanimate – the grammar of a totally different view of the world. Long suppressed, this language now rings out loud and clear, exultantly trumpeted by powerful operatic voices. How marvelous, how unusual! Never has Cree sounded quite like this.
“Experiencing something for the first time is always special,” says Kent Nagano. The tireless ambassador for music conducts the best orchestra anywhere in the world, but this project is one particularly close to his heart. The OSM first visited the Indigenous communities in 2008, but only as a group of seven musicians, who made the journey to the Far North. Now, almost the entire orchestra is on the tour, which includes a few more stops along the way. “Children, in particular, have not yet learned to close themselves off,” says Nagano, “they know neither custom nor cynicism. In the next few days, we will all be a little like children.”
Out of the storm into the twilight
A Monday in September. We’ve been in the air a little more than an hour when the plane prepares to land. Our airplane is carrying 50 very lively musicians from Montreal, and stretching below us are the endless forests of Quebec. We land on a strip in the middle of somewhere, and school buses bring us to Oujé-Bougoumou. This is the fourth stop on a ten-day tour and the youngest of the new First Nations settlements in Quebec. Some 1000 Cree live here on Lake Opemisca, often three families sharing one of the plain timber houses. Not so very long ago, this band was scattered right across Quebec – because the people were looking for work or had been resettled; since 1992, they have lived together here. Right now, the place looks deserted – many people are out at work, most of them processing wood. But there are plenty of dogs, wild dogs that know the hand that feeds them but otherwise roam free. Take a walk in the forest and two or three of them will join you, simply emerging from among the trees, silently, casually almost, as though providing an escort were a natural obligation. They only disappear again when you reach the edge of the village.
At the youth center, preparations for the concert are underway. Bass trombonist Pierre Beaudry hurries cheerily by, a textbook titled “Cours de Cris” under his arm. He heard that some teenagers had already gathered outside the hall, so he’s off to try out his newly acquired language skills At the front door, there’s a poster advertising the concert alongside a notice about trucking classes. Long-distance drivers are always needed here. Then suddenly, a storm hits us. Without any prior warning, the heavens open and the wind assails the wooden planks with such viciousness that the huge sign proclaiming the “Cree Cultural Institute” is dislodged. Overhead lines are torn down causing a power failure – throughout the settlement. A concert isn’t possible in these conditions. But out here, where distances are long and the winters are hard, people are good at finding their own solutions. In next to no time, the entire stocks of a warehouse 40 kilometers away have been bought up and are on their way back to the village, when as the driver speeds back bearing flashlights, batteries, and many, many cable meters of emergency lighting, he is stopped by the police, but then let off with a warning. The people of the village bring along their home generators, and now dozens of light bulbs are strung from basketball nets like twinkling vines. One of the very many Cree words for when it thunders is “nimishiuch,” which means “earth shaker.” Nagano is also happy to make himself useful and busy with an orange lantern. Sadly, it’s only a prop, it doesn’t light up. For the warm-up, 67-year-old Nagano will initially be illuminated by a single floor spot behind his back, so that at least his outline is visible to the musicians. A couple of people have already turned up for the concert. They see Nagano’s spotlit pants.
Then the concert begins, transmitted live on the Cree radio station JBCCS 106.5. The chief, Curtis Bosum welcomes – a slip of the tongue? – the “Montreal Sympathy Orchestra.” They play Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony first, the one with the thunderstorm of all things, then Chaakapesh. The rain hammers ferociously on the roof, but behind the hall, the generators continue to hum unconcernedly. Now and then, the light flickers. Then two dogs appear on the stage. One of them, an adult husky, clearly feels so much at ease among the violins that he has to be shouldered and carried out – a procedure he accepts with complete equanimity. It’s rare for an orchestral concert to be such a dimly lit and cozy affair, but never could it be more fitting than here, since the Cree have always told their legends in darkened tents.
A prankster on tour
There are many old tales of Chaakapesh, the famous prankster who could even raise a laugh from a stone. The opera is a new story told by the author Tomson Highway, himself a Cree. In it, he paints a picture of how it would be if the god Mantoo challenged the coward and swindler Chaakapesh to make the Europeans on Newfoundland laugh, but at the same time, weaving a dark chapter in history with the Chaakapesh character to create an absurdist comic opera; the music is by Canadian composer Matthew Ricketts.
“That’s the beauty of this piece,” says film and radio producer Ernest Webb, 52, “It’s the result of a genuine collaboration, an act of true reconciliation.” Webb is also a member of the Cree nation. On the first evening, he appeared in the role of narrator. “Ernie” himself is a real joker; open, warm-hearted and a bit of a fidget; he wears his long gray hair in two braids.
Webb has traveled far and wide for the radio, visiting many of the nation’s widely scattered elders; he knows their myths, he knows the rules of the pow-wow and the sun dance; he knows how to carry homemade snowshoes out of tent: one has to point toward the tent as a sign that you will return. Webb is a human archive. Isn’t it high time all this precious knowledge were recorded for posterity? After all, the elders won’t be among us forever. “That’s true,” he says, laughing, “but then, for better or for worse, I will be one of the elders!”
One hour in the sky later we arrive in Mashteuiaatsh. Here, the performance will take place at the École Kassinu Mamu, a former residential school on Lac Saint-Jean. Residential schools were where indigenous children were sent after being taken from their parents in order to “reeducate” them – often with traumatic consequences. “They wanted to drive our culture out of us in this place,” says Chief Clifford Moar, “now we are celebrating it right here.” The chief, wearing a fringed vest and a bear claw necklace, is a vehement champion of his people’s rights. He is also in action right now, at the interview the TV is running on the concert. He is affectionately known as “Grandpa” for his 14 grandchildren. “Music is balm to the soul,” he will later say, “we all felt that here today.” As a gift for the guests, he has brought small, rectangular art prints with reddish, symmetrical patterns. Innu women use their teeth to imprint them on birch bark.
The concert is held in the gym. White folding chairs have been set up on the pitch normally used for ball games, and the pennants on the walls bear witness to sports achievements. Nothing here is the way it is at the OSM’s magnificent concert hall in Montréal – improvisation is the order of the day. This doesn’t worry the musicians, though, quite the opposite, in fact, they are enjoying themselves. Again and again during the rehearsal, Nagano walks around between the folding chairs, checking the acoustics. “On no account do we want to appear playing half-hearted or inferior music,” he says, “that was our only condition for this trip.” That’s why they are cutting no corners on the new opera. The music is modern and ambitious, and Nagano keeps on honing the fine details of their performance right up to the last – even on the Beethoven symphony, a piece this orchestra has played so many times before. You cannot help feeling that this time around, it matters more to him than usual.
There’s a moment in Chaakapesh where the story requires silence from the orchestra. Then a musician from the community will play. In Oujé-Bougemou, the young cellist Kelly Cooper played a piece by Johann Sebastian Bach. Today, Kessy Blacksmith is singing “Tapuetu Tshishe Manitu,” a spiritual rock song composed by his grandfather, folk singer Alcide Blacksmith. Webb sits perched on the edge of his chair, listening attentively. “The next Nagano may already be sitting somewhere here in the hall,” he says.
The singing nomad
We’ve been on Innu land for a day now. This time, folk singer Florent Vollant, 59, has taken on the role of the Chaakapesh narrator. At Mani-Utenam, our third stop, Vollant receives a star’s welcome. He runs a recording studio for indigenous music here. Vollant’s parents still lived the old life as caribou hunters on the Mistha-shipu (Moisie River). “Each fall, they would head north along the river to spend the winter in Mani-Utenam. They were hunters, trappers and salmon fishers.” His band has been settled here at the mouth of the river since the 1950s, “but we’re still nomads at heart. We travel a lot because our brothers and sisters live all over the country.” A mild-mannered man, he speaks calmly in a soft, rather high-pitched voice, but preferably not about himself. And why should he? It’s all there in his music. Mishta Meshkenu (The Long Road) is the name of his latest album, a collection of melancholy folk songs in the Innu language, with violin, banjo and guitar accompaniment.
In the community hall, strings of lights mark the imaginary stage, and on the wall behind, the words “Tshinashkumitin Utshimau Nagano“ – We thank you, Maestro Nagano. There’s still some time till the concert. One violinist is cutting her fingernails, another is letting the boys from the village take turns to play on her violin. Bass trombonist Beaudry is surrounded by kids again, playing tunes from Star Wars and Jurassic Park for them. Nagano puts in his contact lenses while Vollant welcomes the first representatives of his family – his grandchildren alone number 16. In many cases, entire families come along to the concert – sometimes as many as four generations. Nagano has to allow plenty of time for photo sessions afterwards.
The tour is nearing its conclusion. Has it brought people closer to each other? “We are merely musicians. It’s not for us to comment on political realities,” says Nagano “but as an orchestra, we are also ambassadors – and that’s a responsibility we accept.” Next morning, six a.m. The party ran on long into the night but before flying home, a handful of bold musicians still sets off for a quick dip – in the waters of the St. Lawrence River, close to the mouth of the Mishta-shipu. The air temperature is just five degrees, at the very most. But as long as we’re here … “30, 29, 28 … 1!” Then out they rush again, whooping, laughing and visibly exhilarated, and gather up the clothes they had flung on the shore. It was definitely worthwhile taking the plunge!