“My people will sleep for a hundred years but when they awake, it will be the artists that give them back their spirit.” – Louis Riel
Snow flurries reduce visibility on Victoria Street. Inside Massey Hall, the focus of the First Nations artists gathered on that storied stage is clear. The collective, who call Ishkōdé Records home, are here for a special taping to retell — and reframe — shared stories, celebrate a forgotten past, and seek reconciliation through song. On this Friday afternoon, in the house Hart Massey built, the smell of sweetgrass wafts to the rafters. Sunlight seeps through the recently restored stained glass windows in the upper gallery. The ground below swells with pride as these artists’ ancestors awake to this musical offering.
Ishkōdé Records — an independent, women-owned Indigenous label — is the vision of ShoShona Kish of Digging Roots, a JUNO Award-winning artist and activist, and Amanda Rheaume, a citizen of the Métis Nation, who has released five records independently over the past 15 years.
The pair had bandied about the notion of starting a home for fellow Indigenous artists for years, having seen a niche that needed filling. In 2019, the artists founded the International Indigenous Music Summit — a first-of-its-kind global event aimed at creating awareness, sharing resources, and building opportunities for the Indigenous music community. Due to COVID-19, the 2021 Summit, held in June, was virtual. Plans are underway to hold a few smaller regional summits this year before returning with another global event in 2023.
“There is only one event of its kind in the world,” Rheaume explains of the International Indigenous Music Summit. “It brings together artists and industry to have conversations and learn from each other. Through that work over the last few years it became even more obvious of the lack of representation of Indigenous artists in the mainstream.”
To make their vision a reality, Rheaume and Kish sought help from friend and fellow music industry veteran Zach Layton. A business plan was drafted that clearly defined their label’s mission and set their long-term goals.
“We wanted to bring our Indigenous ways of knowing and being to the mainstream music industry wherever possible,” Rheaume says. “The commercial music landscape is so exploitative and feels like it extracts from artists rather than lifts them up. We wanted to change the narrative wherever we could.”
Ishkōdé Records aims to amplify Indigenous artists — from all points on the map — allowing a wider audience to hear their songs and stories. Conversations ensued with all the major domestic record labels, who all supported the independent label; eventually, a distribution deal with Universal Music Canada was reached. Aysanabee was Ishkōdé Records’ first signing. Hearing him perform at Massey Hall, it’s no surprise why this Toronto-based Oji-Cree multi-instrumentalist and songwriter was chosen for the inaugural signing. His voice is otherworldly.
MI’KMALTIC: A NEW GENRE IS BORN
Morgan Toney, a Mi’kmaq singer-songwriter and fiddler from Wagmatcook First Nation (Nova Scotia) is the newest artist to join the Ishkōdé family. The 22-year-old picked up the fiddle just a few years ago, but listening to him play you would think he was born with the instrument in his hand. The artist combines his Mi’kmaq heritage with his Celtic roots; in the process, he creates a genre all his own.
“When I first started playing fiddle, I only had two audiences: one that wanted me to sing Mi’kmaq songs and one that wanted me to play Celtic songs on the fiddle,” Toney recalls. “I wanted to figure out a way to bring these two audiences together. One day, a couple of years ago, while I was recording at Cape Breton University, I started to listen to traditional Mi’kmaq songs. One of the first I learned was “Ko’jua.” I started to wonder if there was a way to put a violin behind it, not just play the hand drum.
“I showed it to my friend Keith Mullins and he loved it,” Toney continues. “We made a video and released it last fall. That sparked the whole album and invented a new genre we call Mi’kmaltic (Mi’kmaq + Celtic).”
In 2021, Toney released First Flight independently, selling CDs mainly at shows. While playing festivals, the buzz began and award nominations followed, including one for Indigenous Songwriter of the Year at the Canadian Folk Music Awards and three from the East Coast Music Awards (Indigenous Artist of the Year, Inspirational Recording of the Year, and Rising Star Recording of the Year). On March 25, Ishkōdé Records re-released First Flight internationally on vinyl and on all digital platforms.
“I was expecting this when I was maybe 30 or 40 after having a few albums out,” Toney says of the recent accolades. “Everything just snowballed … people are loving this blend of two cultures and want to hear more of it and be part of the journey.”
SONGS FOR THE EIGHTH FIRE
In the Anishinaabemowin language, Ishkōdé means fire. Rheaume explains how fire embodies the label’s philosophy.
“In our culture, we talk a lot about our centre fire and all the other fires you keep in your life,” the songwriter comments. “There is an Anishinaabekwe prophecy that speaks about the eight fires. The seventh fire, the prophets said, would be a time of great suffering and division for all humans. Our elders say we are currently in the seventh fire and we have a choice between two roads. The first path is a return to our teachings and our old ways of being and knowing. The other path is towards capitalism where we do not change and keep destroying the planet.
“If we choose the first path, we can light the eighth and final fire and return to balance and unity. We want to bring healing through music.”
Ishkōdé’s artists sing songs that embody the spirit of the eighth fire.
The Ishkōdé Records story is only just beginning. 2022 is shaping up to be a big year for the independent Indigenous label, with Rheaume’s new record The Spaces in Between out now, and Digging Roots’ Zhawenim coming out on June 17. Stay tuned for more stories and songs to come from voices you may not have heard before, and voices you won’t soon forget.