Here to Stay: Thirty Years of Aboriginal Music

By Todd Burnell

The last thirty years have seen a great evolution of the Aboriginal music scene in Canada. So much so that when someone asks me to explain what Aboriginal music is I tell them that it is whatever Aboriginal artists want it to be.

There are, of course, the styles that have stood the test of time: Pow wow, hand drum, peyote, fiddling and throat singing have been and will remain vital forms of musical and cultural expression for Aboriginal artists. But there are few genres of music that do not have at least some representation from Aboriginal artists.

How reflective each artist chooses to make their music of their Aboriginal heritage varies a great deal. Some make a conscious effort to let the world know where they are coming from and others simply create from the perspective of their environments without trying to distinguish themselves as Aboriginal.

Today I often need to encourage people to let go of old stereotypes of what an Aboriginal perspective is. We are often still dealing with an expectation that “Aboriginal” is synonymous with a natural and traditionally spiritual environment. While these aspects may be reflected in the music of some of our artists they are by no means the rule.

For me, Native American flautist Kelly Kiyoshk from Walpole Island is the embodiment of an artist who is deeply spiritual and closely connected to nature. I do not need to explain to anyone that Kelly creates from an “Aboriginal” perspective. But, when it comes to an artist like Dave Boulanger from Burnt – Project 1, I have had to go to great lengths at times to explain that his songs about themes common to a new generation of Aboriginal youth growing up in an inner-city environment are also true “Aboriginal” perspectives.

Boulanger is at the leading edge of Aboriginal artists who are creating powerful songs that are reflective of their lives in urban settings. He knows he is aboriginal and he knows that people have preconceived notions of what to expect from him, but he will continue to write about the experiences that are relevant and powerful for him.

When people expect songs about soaring eagles and spirit winds and instead get songs about lives touched by suicide and prostitution they are challenged to open up their minds about what is truly reflective of the “Aboriginal” experience.

Today’s artists have found the confidence to create from the perspective that has the greatest relevance for them. In the past many struggled with what their heritage meant to them as individuals and as artists. Now they know it, they feel it, and it drives them forward as they create some of the most moving and deeply relevant music to be found anywhere. It is new and it is old, it is deep and it is diverse, and it is proudly aboriginal.

I know from my experiences in the music industry, and specifically in the Aboriginal music industry, that there is no limit to the diversity that the creative spirit will present us with. We just need to keep an open mind and enjoy the ride.

Todd Burnell is the director of marketing and communications for Sunshine Records, Canada’s oldest Aboriginal label. He is himself a recording and performing musician and is currently performing with the Prairie Notes.