Sandy Scofield: Native Songstress

By Cher Bloom

Sandy Scofield”With approximately 200 Aboriginal radio stations across Canada, Aboriginal record labels, a Juno category and the Aboriginal Music Awards now approaching its fourth year, the native Canadian music scene is stronger and more organized than ever,” says Juno-nominated Métis singer-songwriter Sandy Scofield.

The Aboriginal rock and pop scene is earning its place on the musical map. This year, native musicians were given the opportunity to present their sounds to the Grammy Awards voting committee, at the first annual Native American Grammy Nominee Showcase in Hollywood.

Sandy Scofield’s CD, “Riel’s Road,” was nominated for a Juno this year in the “Best Music of Aboriginal Canada” category; in 2001, it received two nominations for the 2001 West Coast Music Awards; and, took home the “Best Alternative Album” and “Beat Single” awards for the opening track, “Beat The Drum,” at the 2000 Aboriginal Music Awards. As well, Sandy performed live on this show at Toronto’s Skydome and, more recently, was filmed and interviewed by Star TV at her sold-out, standing room only Junofest showcase in St. John’s, NFLD.

Sandy has been described as a “transforming trickster. She can use melody and beautiful harmonies to carry weighty messages. Her keen ear for original arrangements, her experience articulated in powerful lyrics, and her beautiful vocal instrument, combine to form a growing body of incisive musical works which touch contemporary audiences of all cultures. At one moment she can sing delicate, satiny pop, creating a cracked and broken down scenario, and in another, can boldly harness robust rhythm, blues and rock. She brings a modern heartbeat to the singing of her Metis heritage.”

She has opened for artists such as Buffy Sainte Marie, Tom Jackson and Louisiana’s Buckwheat Zydeco. Her songs have appeared on compilations, film and documentary sound tracks and in theatre productions. Recently, she provided the music for a series of Diabetes Awareness radio broadcasts and previously co-wrote and performed CKLG Radio’s Christmas Toy Drive song in December rotation from 1996 to 2000.

She has just completed the commission of eight songs for Namgis playwright Laura Cranmer’s theatre play entitled “DP’s Colonial Cabaret,” and will be attending the Banff Centre in August to compose a piece for Blackfoot choreographer Byron Chief Moon and his dance ensemble.

The year “Riel’s Road” was released was a very emotional one for Sandy. Her stepmother and favorite Auntie passed away within months of each other. “My Aunt was the mainstay in my life. I was quite grief stricken when she passed into the spirit world in July of 2000. The record came out in September, and I won the awards in November.”

It was submitted to the 2001 Juno’s without being nominated. Because of the timing of the album’s release, there was a window in which it could also be submitted for the 2002 Juno’s as well.

The same thing occurred with Mishi Donovan, whose CD “The Spirit Within” was submitted in 1997 without garnering a nomination. The next year she was not only nominated for the same recording, she took home the award.

One of the people instrumental in encouraging Sandy to resubmit the album in the Aboriginal category was Elaine Bomberry. Sandy calls her “a real mover and shaker in Toronto. She has a radio show, she’s an events promoter at the Comfort Zone Club and she works for The Centre For Indigenous Theater.”

This year’s 2002 nominees in the “Best Music of Aboriginal Canada” category included Métis singer/songwriter Marcel Gagnon, Alberta’s Billy Joe Green, an established blues player, the youth Pow Wow group, Nakoda Lodge from Morley, and the Winnipeg based Eagle and Hawk led by Vince Fontaine.”Vince is a friend of mine and I was really happy that his group won. He’s been at this music thing as long as I have and totally deserved to win. Getting nominated was award enough for me. Being able to go to the Juno’s in St. John’s, NFLD was the trip of a lifetime!”

Sandy was honored to be invited by Sheila Copps, the Minister of Heritage Canada, who distributes all the arts funding money in the country, to take part in a round table discussion the day of the Juno’s, on how her ministry can better support music artists in this country.

“I was to speak from aboriginal perspective and stressed that we need more support in the mainstream industry. While education funding and programming is outside of the mandate of Ms. Copps’ ministry, I had to express the importance of Native kids needing opportunities and access to the same kind of education programs that dominant society kids do, like media, music and arts. These kids need professional people from their own communities to administer these programs. There are lots of successful aboriginal professionals in theatre, art, music and film who may not have a degree in education, but possess the cultural awareness, skills and expertise and who have demonstrated success in their fields, to go into the communities to mentor the kids.”

Sandy thinks that it’s great that the Juno’s are honoring the First people, and that this category exists. “Best Music of Aboriginal Canada”, however, encompasses everything from traditional Pow Wow music to straight ahead jazz, blues, pop, and everything in between. She would like to see Aboriginal artists whose work is specialized in a particular genre, be recognized in the dominant Juno categories.

“There’s a whole scene emerging in Native hip hop, for example. The kids identify very much with the issues of black Americans. Red Power Squad, is a native rap group with break dancers–they rap about issues directly related to the communities.”

For her fourth recording, Sandy is negotiating with Kinnie Starr, who is Mohawk by heritage and who works in hip-hop and beat poetry, to do collaboration. She has also begun writing with her guitar player, Stephen Nikleva, towards this end, and they have a few pseudo hip-hop songs already in the bag.

Scofield says the impact of contemporary aboriginal music is reaching more than just aboriginal audiences. “Think back to the days of Nirvana and the whole grunge scene in Seattle, and how they put alternative music on the map, ” Scofield says. “Before that, alternative music didn’t count. Now it’s been established as a viable genre. “That’s the stage I think we’re in now,” she says.” Our audience is expanding to include the greater society and the industry needs to recognize that.”

Sandy describes her players as “a really happening band.” Her drummer is Randall Stoll, (he plays with Tom Cochrane, and was k.d.lang’s drummer on her “Ingenue” tour). Her bass player is Brian Minato, who also works with Sarah McLachlan and Jack Tripper, and her guitar player (and Sandy’s co-producer on Riel’s Road), is long-time friend Stephen Nikleva (he plays with Ray Condo and the Ricochets and used to be Mae Moore’s guitarist).

Other players on “Riel’s Road” include Sue Leonard (a previous back-up singer or k.d. lang), trumpeter/fiddler Daniel Lapp and R&B songstress, Fara. The album features her glorious voice, her imaginative musical ideas and a very sharp pen. Cover art is from renowned Cree artist George Littlechild. Elements of folk, pop, jazz, country rock, rap and Cree music lead her to be called “alternative”.” Get High,” a track from Riel’s Road, is being re-released on the First Peoples Blues compilation from Sweetgrass Records out of Saskatoon, distributed by EMI Music, Canada, alongside tracks from Keith Secola, Murray Porter, Billy Jo Green and Jani Lauzon. First People’s Blues is due for release by late spring 2002.

The song “Yellowgrass” from “Riel’s Road” is dedicated to her father who grew up in La Pas, Manitoba. It speaks to a “homeland”, the closest she could identify with home, if the Metis had one.

There’s another song called “Bloodlines.” “It’s about the downtown east side (Vancouver)-the Native women who leave their communities, come into the city and who end up in the sex trade or addicted, and who have forgotten about ‘the strength and pride of their bloodlines’. We don’t have to be crackheads or be in the sex trade to know what despair is about. All human beings need to feel that we have something to offer and that we matter to someone. Sure there are ethnic differences between one group and another, cultural protocols that we may not understand, but the essence of humanity is the same. We all have fear, hurt, rage, hope, and joy. I’m especially interested in our condition here on this physical plane.”

“I’m aware that the spirit world is all around us. Ours is a three dimensional plane. My ancestors might be right here whispering in my ear, the words that are coming out of my mouth. That’s what fascinates me, the fact that we are spirit beings in the material plane, as Sting cited in one of his songs. I have a responsibility to make constructive use of the gifts that the Creator has imparted to me and of which I’ve inherited from my ancestors, many of whom were singers and musicians.”

Both Riel’s Road and Dirty River (her first album), took a long time to do, because of the financial challenges surrounding the production of a CD. Sandy is determined that the next project won’t take as long to produce. She’s basically invested everything she’s ever had into her career. In order to keep such a career afloat, an artist has to be in the public eye. Even when they’re out there, you’re subjected to the “flavour of the month,” as she puts it. “Sometimes all you come out with is a reputation (hopefully its a good one). I can’t even say objectively if I like playing live all the time. Its just what I do.”

Her greatest goal in life is to be able to continue creating and committing music to disc. The creative process is the thing for her. Once the songs have been recorded, she’s onto the next thing. The courtship is in the creation.

Sandy is about half way through recording her third record, which features Sandy and singers Lisa Sazama and Shakti Hayes. There are three songs in Algonquin, which Lisa has written and several in plains Cree, most of which Sandy has written. Five of the songs are round dances.

“I’ve taken four of these songs and arranged them with my band. This is pushing the envelope a little bit, I suppose.” Hand drums and/or rattles accompany the rest of the songs, some of which have additional, but minimal harmonic instrument accompaniment so that the whole hangs together. The working title is “Katoum,” a Cree word for ‘until we meet again’ since the word ‘goodbye,’ in itself, does not exist in the language.

“Any artist whose work I’ve truly admired has always said the same thing-to create from what is real and true for you. It is when your work is derived from your personal truths, it is that truth that comes through and touches others. I don’t profess to be a spokesperson, per se, for any artist or community. I write from my own truths about things I’ve witnessed, experienced personally and which have impacted my life and shaped my perspective as a result.”

Interestingly, Sandy was not involved in traditional native music until she attended a residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts in 1995. This program was a ten-week immersion in aboriginal musical traditions, featuring Native elder women from across North America, and led by Sadie Buck, the artistic director of the acclaimed “Aboriginal Women’s Voices”.

Sandy’s a strong believer in education, which is why she keeps going back to school to study different forms of music. Formally trained in classical and jazz after a two-year stint at Vancouver Community College, she hopes to attend SFU this fall towards the completion of a Bachelor in Music with a focus on electronic and digital music.

For more information on Sandy Scofield, please visit her website.