The Jay Tennant Memorial Fund
Part of the DAREarts Webequie Music Program was made possible through a generous gift of the Jay Tennant Memorial Fund.
Last year, Glenn Marais went to Webequie and worked with the students on a new song. Days stretched into evenings and weeks of collaboration and culminated in a song and Community Feast that unified the work of that year’s efforts. As we prepare for this year’s Nee-tum-ochi-bek (First Roots Aboriginal Program) workshop in Webequie, our seventh, it’s great to reflect on past lessons and rewards.
Here is Glenn’s story.
Day one-When we arrived, we were informed that a member of the community had passed away and that classes would be suspended for that day. We spent the whole day creating and arranging the audio track for the planned performance. Tasks including editing songs, creating beats and adapting existing drum and chant recordings from 2011 to fit within the new play. We worked at the hotel for the whole day.
Day Two-First day of writing with the classes-we introduced the theme “The journey of life”, which was developed from the larger theme relative to the moccasin project, “Walk in Our Mocs”. In our initial discussion, I outlined the theme by comparing it to a main road that had many different paths and roads connected to it. Some were short and easy, but could lead you away from the main purpose of your journey. Others were winding and challenging but would lead back to the main road and you would arrive stronger, wiser and proud. We spent a long time discussing this with the students and then broke them into groups to brainstorm words, and sentences based on the theme and our discussion. The groups shared their strongest lines with the class and all of the ideas were transferred onto two to three main charts for the next day’s work.
The students were invited and strongly encouraged to come to the portable at night, from 7-10. We reminded them of the deadline and short timeline for creating, arranging, rehearsing and recording the song. We only had four days to do what we normally did in five.
The attendance was great and we wrote down everyone’s names who attended as the teachers promised extra marks for those that came at night. I conducted a writing exercise with several of the students, in which I asked them to tell their life story to me. They were curious as to what I wanted to know and how much they could say. I asked them for the truth and for their trust in sharing this with me. I explained that the best songs and writing came for sharing truth and that in doing so, we grew as artists and people. The results were nothing short of incredible. As I read their writing, I was overcome with emotion of tales of alcoholic parents, incredibly difficult childhood experiences and their own experiences with addiction at ages as young as 10. I was honoured and taken back by their forthright expressions of their lives. I told them that I would honour their writing with great respect and thanked them for trusting me with their lives and their words. Some of the writing connected to our theme and I asked them if we could anonymously use their journal writing in our song. They seemed to like this idea and although hesitant at first, showed a high degree of pride and self esteem in the knowledge that their writing would now be a part of the song.
The song now had a spirit and a life to it, that wasn’t there before and I left that night deeply moved and excited at where the song was going and the potential to create a powerful piece of art.
I shared the lyrics that I had edited after our evening session with the class the next day. I set them to work on the chorus, verse two and bridge of the song and began to work on ideas for the music. The main riff for the song came very quickly. As is the case with great lyrics, the music came very quickly and the song seemed to spell it out for me.
I played and sang the song for the class and they seemed to like it. We practised it together several times and left feeling really charged about our new creation
Attendance again was great and the energy level high. Several students took it onto themselves to write the chorus in Oji-Cree. It was great to see the pride in their culture exhibited in the insistence that the song be bilingual and contain the proud language of their heritage. We laughed a lot that night as they tried to teach me the words to the song and I stumbled over the difficult pronunciations. We all laughed as we tried to to create a translation sequence between English and Oji-Cree that fit in the melody of the song. We spent the whole night on the chorus and by the end of the night, had an intro, verse and chorus that we could all sing with pride and great energy.
Note-The true beauty of this experience was in the absolute collaboration of the song. We all took turns leading and sharing our ideas and the song truly felt like a group creation. There was enormous strength and power in that realization heading into our final day of creating before we spent the last day recording.
Once a song gets to this point, it really becomes a matter of filling in the blanks. I demonstrated how to map a verse, by using syllables and continuation and evolution of the story into verse two and bridge. We finished the song fairly quickly and spent the rest of the day rehearsing for the next day’s recording
I spent the evening session building the track and rehearsing with the students. I had to lay down a drum track, record a clean guitar track, a guide vocal and set-up the vocal tracks for the next day’s sessions.
The plan was to record the students in groups of four, two and one. A few of the students demonstrated incredible vocal ability and were asked to sing solo. The reaction was a mixture of pride and shyness. They all did an incredible job, nailing the vocal parts in one to two takes. While one group recorded, the other waited to get a sense of how the song would go and learn through the other’s experience. This method really helps in overcoming the inherent shyness that is prevalent on this reserve. We used the entire afternoon to get all of the songs and I remember the teacher building a fire outside for the kids waiting to stay warm. Ah the beauty of working up north, where a teacher can just step outside and build a fire for his class. No-one complained despite the bitter cold and we all felt a tremendous sense of pride and accomplishment.
The final evening session was a celebration, as I played back the rough mix of the song for the students and we sang the song several times together. We also recorded a few songs with local musician Eric Shewaybick and another young man, who Eric has been mentoring in drum and vocal and life. He is doing a wonderful job with this young man, who lost his brother two years before under tragic circumstances while he was attending school in Thunder Bay.
The overall experience for me as a songwriter was incredibly rewarding and confirmed for me a lot of my beliefs in the power and restorative qualities of the arts. Writing in particular is a very cathartic experience and time and time again, I have seen writing open up tremendous avenues of expression for young, troubled youth. I have encountered some very limiting opinions on writing with young people and heard that they don’t write or they don’t like to write and yet, when you point them down the path of self expression, the release and growth that I have seen in them is overwhelming. One student, Dixon, showed an incredible gift for words and with a gift of a journal from his teacher, amazed me every day with the amount that he wrote and the high level of expression that he showed. He really seemed to shine and grow with the recognition of his talent. Self-expression is so important for young people and when they are lacking in confidence, creating a system for success will develop a true love for the arts and creative writing.
This year, Glenn will be mentoring long distance a student in Marten Falls FN as part of the Jay Tennant Memorial Award. Craig Acheepineskum will be the 2014 recipient of a scholarship with guitar lessons. Congratulations to Craig and thank you Glenn, for once again, sharing your big heart and beautiful voice!