Interview: Kevin “Sipreano” Howes and Native North America Volume 1

May 29, 2015

Kevin “Sipreano” Howes, the creative force behind Native North America Volume 1. Credit: Kelly Claude Nairn.

Nathaniel Schmidt: Can you begin by telling people about who you are and what you do?

Kevin Howes: My name is Kevin Howes (aka Sipreano) and I am a 40-year-old Vancouver-based reissue producer, Canadian music/culture historian, vinyl archivist, DJ, blogger, and journalist. Music is my life and my goal is to document, preserve, and champion marginalized, yet still pertinent vintage music with people around the world. I do this by immersing myself in sound, hitting the road, and connecting with people and their stories. The songs are only a part of the equation here. I’ve been doing this work for over 20 years now and I feel blessed to have interacted with so many incredible creators in my travels. 

NS: What is the Native North America project?

KH: Native North America is an archival music project that I brought to Seattle and Los Angeles-based Light in the Attic Records back in 2009. The idea was to create a series of much needed compilations and album reissues that would help to raise awareness and celebrate the legacy of trailblazing Indigenous singers, songwriters, poets, and musicians from Canada, the United States, Mexico, and Greenland who were cutting vinyl records during the 1960s-80s. Native North America (Vol. 1): Aboriginal Folk, Rock, and Country 1966-1985 features 23 artists and groups from Canada and Alaska and was released in November of 2014 to international acclaim. It’s been amazing to see people respond to this music and culture.

NS: What first drew you to compile this collection?

KH: It’s always the strength of the music that draws me to compile a project of this nature. I couldn’t believe that a singer-songwriter and poet like Willie Dunn wasn’t listed amongst canonized artists like Gordon Lightfoot, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, and Joni Mitchell as one of the all-time greats. Dunn was also a filmmaker for the National Film Board of Canada and directed the award winning short film The Ballad of Crowfoot in 1968, but outside of Indigenous communities, his work is little known and certainly underappreciated considering its cultural importance and weight. Unfortunately, Dunn passed away in 2013. It’s another reminder that this is time sensitive work. 

NS: You’re no stranger to rare music like this. Can you talk about some of the other projects you’ve worked on?

KH: While my prime focus is on Canadian music history and culture, I appreciate and love music from around the world. I count myself lucky to have worked on reissue projects with Sixto Rodriguez (Cold Fact and Coming From Reality), Thin Lizzy (Thin Lizzy, Shades of a Blue Orphanage, Vagabonds of the Western World), the Motown label (Our Lives Are Shaped By What We Love: Motown’s Mowest Story 1971-1973), Doug Randle (Songs for the New Industrial State) and a six-album series called Jamaica-Toronto, which documented the musical migration from the Caribbean to Canada in the 1960s and 1970s. There are many more, but I approach all of these projects with the same respect for the music. This work is a true labour of love and I put my heart and soul into every release.

NS: Why have many of these groups been so under-appreciated?

KH: That’s a very tough question. The artists and groups on Native North America (Vol. 1) are very much appreciated in Indigenous communities across Canada, but for any number of reasons, including lack of media/industry support and even racism, they weren’t able to break into the mainstream. But these players are certainly not alone in that struggle. It’s always been and continues to be a challenge for independent artists to make a living from their craft, let alone be recognized for it. Willie Dunn, Shingoose, Duke Redbird, and David Campbell did achieve a certain level of Canadian success through their craft, but they were only able to take it so far. What’s incredible is that they never faltered from their vision and beliefs. The messages in their words and songs are still relevant today and they should be heard. 

NS: Native North America has made some waves, such as with a story being published in Rolling Stone. What sort of impact do you think it’s had on the music and people’s awareness of the artists?

KH: The media and the record buying public have definitely resonated with Native North America (Vol. 1). It’s a testament to the power of the music and the conviction of the artists. With the Internet and today’s technology, what was once regional is now global, so it’s reaching a lot of people who haven’t heard these songs before. Also, the majority of this music hasn’t been readily available since its original release in the 1960s-80s. Many of these artists are still active in music today and it’s provided them an opportunity to showcase what’s happening in the here and now.

NS: The music has been released through Seattle label Light in the Attic Records. Can you give a brief description about what they do and how your relationship with them began?

KH: Light in the Attic is a record label and distribution hub that was founded in 2002 by Matt Sullivan and I’ve been working with them in a freelance capacity for the last 12 years. The first project that we collaborated on was a 2004 re-release of Wayne McGhie & the Sounds of Joy, a landmark Jamaican-Canadian soul, funk, and reggae album from 1970 that fell through the cracks at the time of release, but became a holy grail to hip-hop producers and DJs searching for the perfect beat in the 1990s. By digging into the musical past, LITA and I have made history. We’ve been through a lot over the years and it’s been great to see the label expand with an ever-growing catalogue of strong releases.

NS: Why do you think it’s important to document and release all of this previously unknown music?

KH: I don’t believe that all music from the past is worthy of reappraisal, but the music that still resonates strongly today or has important historical value should be documented and shared as intrinsic pieces of our collective cultural fabric. It does no good rotting away in someone’s basement or in an inaccessible “public” archive. By reanimating this material we can bridge generations, cultures, and eras of technology, something that I feel doesn’t happen enough in today’s streamlined digital age.

NS: Did you end up meeting and forming a relationship with any of the artists featured on Native North America?

KH: It’s been a total honour to meet so many of my musical heroes during this journey. We would have no projects to work on without their cultural contributions and their involvement is imperative. An interesting by-product of these reissues is that I’ve been able to help get some of these veteran artists on stage and performing for fans old and new. Last winter, I organized Native North America gatherings with Duke Redbird and Willie Thrasher in Toronto and Vancouver respectively and hope to do more events featuring some of the other artists on the compilation. We are all connected and I look forward to meeting every one of them.

NS: Has there been an enduring idea or thought that you’ve come away with from working on the project?

KH: Music, as we know, is a great connector. It also has the capability to heal, elevate, and inform. It can change the world. For me, Native North America has been a massive learning experience, one that will continue for the rest of my life. Unfortunately, the lyrical themes that many of the artists were singing about in the 1960s-80s are still pertinent today. Considering the financially motivated destruction of the environment, corporate bottom line dominance where profit trumps people, and a conservative political landscape that is not responding to many of the pressing concerns in Canada’s Aboriginal communities, I feel that it is very important to have these songs available. I know that they will touch your soul.


Read my In the Spotlight article with Kevin “Sipreano” Howes here.


–Interview by Nathaniel Schmidt

About the Author

Nathaniel Schmidt

Born and raised in the Comox Valley, Nathaniel is a composer, teacher, writer, and reluctant pianist who has been freelancing in Calgary in various capacities for over seven years. He freely admits to enjoying everything Sting has done pre-1998 (including Dune).

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