By Frank Larue
“My earliest recollection of music is of my grandfather singing traditional songs and telling stories,” says musician Art Napoleon. “Those stories were meaningful, and that is what I try to do with my music. Aboriginal music is definitely booming right now. I remember when it was hard to find an Aboriginal, and now there are tons.”
Art enjoys the respect of fans and peers alike, but he is unlike many of the artists who grew up in cities that offered not only opportunity for aspiring musicians but role models they could emulate. Art was raised by his grandparents from Moberly Lake in northern British Columbia. They spoke Cree and taught Art the basics of survival that had been handed down to Native children from generation to generation. Hunting and fishing kept his people alive for a thousand years, and Art was expected to excel in both. He may have gathered a following as a singer and songwriter, but he can still skin a moose with a pocketknife.
Art Napoleon served as chief of the Saulteaux First Nation in Moberly Lake, trained and worked for a decade as sweatlodge keeper, and was in charge of traditional ceremonies. “It’s very intense,” he admits. “It involves a lot of fasting, like four times a year… The ceremony itself is very rigorous. There’s no food or water for four days, and you’re dancing about eight hours a day.”
Musicians often find their calling in strange ways, and for Art it happened in elementary school and he remembers it fondly. “Story time at school, some kid had brought a harmonica. I’d never seen a harmonica in my life. I felt left out. It was like show and tell,” he said. “[One] kid went up, played guitar, and sang—six years old, singing Johnny Cash. He was the star of the class; he was the teacher’s pet.” Then Art looked at the girl with the harmonica and asked, “Can I borrow that?” He then looked at the teacher and said, “I can play harmonica.” She replied, “Is that right Arthur? Come on up.” At that moment Art made music. “I made it right up on the spot,” he said, “and sure enough, I could play—just faked it and made it into a real thing. It just came naturally.”
Art does not lack authenticity and is a born entertainer with a cutting sense of humor and enough charisma to engage the growing audiences who have come to appreciate his music. As a young man he never considered music as a career; it was a dream that he kept inside. “I came to life when I had a [microphone] in my hand.” In 1990, his dream became reality when the Salmon Arm Folk Music Society hired him at the last minute to fill in for the headliner who was unable to play. Art’s performance impressed the audience at the festival, and he received a flattering review from the Salmon Arm Observer.
For Art, the door had opened, and he began pursuing a musical career. So far, he has released four CD’s. One for children Mocikan: Songs for Learning Cree was nominated for best children’s recording at the Western Canadian Music Awards. Miyoskamin was released in 2006 and brought him to the attention of CBC’s Galaxy Folk-Roots radio program. Miyoskamin won two Aboriginal People’s Choice Awards and received praise from the media: “Art Napoleon’s raw rhythmic style stands alone in the northern woods. Performed in English and Cree, the songs convey a deep sense of artistry and understanding of his music that render the album completely accessible for anyone looking for new Native music with soul.”
Siskabush Tales, his next release, was a personal look at life from a Native perspective and showed his depth as a songwriter. The Vancouver Province described Art as “a First Nations artist who sings about real issues, not touch-feely spiritual music for liberal Colonial hippies.” Vancouver Folk Festival director Doug Simpson, who has the opportunity to see and hear a multitude of performers, described Art as “a classic example of what a good songwriter should be.” Simpson said, “His songs deal with the upsides and downsides of life on the reserve and with the challenges involved in dealing with mainstream society.”
Creeland Covers is Art’s newest CD, and as the title suggests, it is a collection of his favorite songs sung in Cree. Buffy Sainte Marie was one the first Aboriginal songwriters to mix traditional Native themes with mainstream folk influences. Kashtin, the Quebec Native band that sold more CD’s than any other Native band, sung in Montagnais, which was understood by only their people, yet the album went gold and helped the band become famous.
The material for Creeland Covers is all classics: Smoky Robinson’s “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me,” the Beatles “Rain,” Creedence Clearwater’s “Long As I Can See The Light”—all produced with deep respect for the original arrangements. It is surprising how well the Cree language adapts to the English lyrics. Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya” is written in a Cajun patois but somehow survives in Cree with certain words transcending the language.
Art Napoleon will be performing at the Chan Centre on September 30th. No one can predict the future in music, especially these days, but Art has no doubts he will survive and thrive by being no one else but himself. “I don’t ever hide the fact that I’m Native,” he says. “I wear proudly on my shirt sleeve.”