Art as Resistance: Indigenous musicians and their work

A series of conversations with Rise Ashen and Wolf Castle

When many Canadians think of the music of First Nations people, they might conjure up images of drum circles, with Elders in traditional outfits, leading a community in song. That is a part of the story of Indigenous music, but there are many artists who are taking the artform into new places, by mixing parts of their heritage with modern technology and trends.

I sat down with two artists who are pushing the envelope of Indigenous music in the modern world and got to see their perspectives on the art they make.

Silla and Rise are an Indigenous group that fuses traditional Inuit throat singing with modern house, techno and hip hop production. Silla are Cynthia Pitsiulak (Kimmirut, NU) and Charlotte Qamaniq (Iglulik, NU) their name comes from the Inuktitut word “Sila” meaning weather. The Rise in the name is Rise Ashen, a Juno Award nominated non-Indigenous DJ and grooves producer based in Ottawa. Their debut album came out in 2016 and was nominated for a Juno for Indigenous Album of the Year. Rise Ashen spoke to me just after dropping his kids off at school to talk about the group’s origin and journey. 

“I started producing when I was 16 years old. And I’m 46 now. So, I’ve been producing steadily and increased with increasing frequency since I was 16. It’s been 30 years of collaborating with a lot of different musicians. And up until about 10 years ago, I didn’t know anything at all about Indigenous music,” he said.

Rise’s ears were open to new music, from growing up around dancehall and afro-Carribean artists among others, but he had never learned about any Indigenous music.

A chance encounter on a skating rink ten years ago led Rise to an Anishinaabe singer named Kevin Cheek (who goes by the name Flying Down Thunder) who he ended up collaborating with on an album that got nominated for a Juno. This was his first exposure to Indigenous music and culture and it led him to some realizations.

“You know, there used to be 500 languages in North America now, there’s probably 100 to 150 that are selectively spoken. But there’s so many different pockets of culture and each culture is so distinct and all has its own – language and customs and traditions and fashion and style in regalia. It’s different dance steps.” Rise said, remarking on his own learning, “It was a cultural genocide that happened. The European system just annihilates everything everywhere it goes, like it’s incredible man, like it just it’s an unbelievable thing that we don’t even realize when I was growing up,” he said.

He felt he had some part in preserving this music, and he continued to collaborate with other Indigenous artists as a producer, working with Cheek on projects of cultural preservation. Cheek and Rise traveled to record Mohawk Elders and their ceremonial music, playing shows for communities in need. He was living in Ottawa at this time, which has a large community of Indigenous musicians, and he met Cynthia of Silla around this time. He brought her along to do a corporate event in 2016, which was the start of them working together.

Rise was asked to do another corporate event for the Museum of Nature in Ottawa, and this is where his partnership with Silla took form. 

“For this one edition, they had this idea of this northern exhibit, and they wanted northern music. So, they approached me, and asked, Hey, can you do remixes of Northern music? So, I started getting into it. There’s like seven different tribes that have been preserving their cultures, and they’re all different. So, I’m talking to this woman who is really cool, but we really wanted to make an impact. And I was like, Well, how much money?”

The answer was enough to bring not just Cynthia but Charlotte as well. It went so well that they knew that they had to continue working together, and Silla and Rise was born. They continued to play parties, working on new songs, and recorded two albums so far. Their live shows are especially moving, with the spontaneity and energy of a rap battle, with Rise playing part DJ and part percussionist.

The music is always changing, yet staying the same, Rise said.

“You know, just reinterpreting a lot of the old. How would you say it like this old curriculum of songs that they have, and then they’re messing with it, they’re turning into different things.”

Wolf Castle (real name Tristan Grant) is a Mi’kMaq rapper from Pabineau First Nation, New Brunswick. He has been nominated for an East Coast Music Award twice, and released a handful of projects in the past three years. His most recent project “Gold Rush” is available on streaming services. He spoke to me from his home in Bathurst, not far from the First Nation reserve where he grew up.

Wolf Castle comes by his profession as a rapper honestly. His mother was a rapper and he told me the story about his uncle’s career in the rap industry.

“My uncle Raymond went by Red Suga. He put out an album in 2003 when I was six years old at the time. And he was doing it. He was performing. And he got featured on MuchMusic. And I remember he did a show in Toronto at the SkyDome. And I went with them, my whole family went because I think they got a grant and they just spent all the money, rented a tour bus, brought the whole family down, and stayed in a hotel.

For Wolf Castle rapping was a family affair, but Grant learned to find his own path. He wrestled with the ideas of Indigenous music and where his place in it was, but he kept coming back to the hip hop genre. When I asked why that was, Grant remarked, “I think it’s because a lot of what rappers talk about in terms of like, the African American experience in America is very similar to the native experience in Canada, like so similar. It’s unbelievable.”

His Mi’k Maq identity informs him as a person, but when asked about his feelings about the history of Indigenous music, he said, “I didn’t really want to do the traditional music, because it just wasn’t what I was interested in. Even though I know songs, I know all about it. I just wasn’t that interested in doing that. And again, like another thing is, I talk about my experience and where I come from and who I am.”

His art comes from a place of deep understanding and personal knowledge, steeped in the history of his people and where he comes from. Wolf Castle said something that gets repeated often when talking to artists of colour, and something that is owed to these talented Indigenous musicians and that was

 “I didn’t want to just be like an Indigenous artist, I want to be just seen as a musician.”

Evan Gravelle is a journalism student and wrote this piece as part of the Reporting in Indigenous Communities course offered as part of the Humber College Media Arts Journalism Program.