May 29, 2015
Canadian music has a rich history that involves artists from every genre making an impact around the world. Think Glenn Gould and his ground-breaking performance in the USSR, Oscar Peterson and his legendary trio, or the Grammy award winning, stadium-filling success of Arcade Fire. These are the stories that we all know, stories that have been told and re-told in discussions about Canadian music.
There are some stories that have been forgotten though, ones that are just as important as these famous examples. For Vancouver DJ, music/cultural historian, and archivist, Kevin “Sipreano” Howes, finding these stories and bringing them to a wider audience has become a personal mission that has lasted for decades.
Howes does so with a passion for preservation and an unabashed love for music. “Music is my life,” he says via email. “My goal is to document, preserve, and champion marginalized, yet still pertinent vintage music.”
He has been doing this—amongst his other busy musical undertakings—with Seattle record label, Light in the Attic Records, which specializes in reissues and rare recordings. Howes began his relationship with the label in 2004 and has collaborated in many capacities since then.
Among his past projects, he’s also delved into Caribbean music in Canada. That resulted in a six-album series entitled, Jamaica-Toronto. He has also worked on reissues with Sixto Rodriguez, Thin Lizzy, and the Motown Label.
Even through the text of a computer screen, you can sense Howes’ devotion to the subject. “Music, as we know, is a great connector,” he says. “It can change the world.” With his latest project, Native North America (Vol. 1): Aboriginal Folk, Rock, and Country-1966-1985 (NNA), Howes is connecting a whole new audience to a forgotten corner of Aboriginal music history.
A short documentary about NNA Vol. 1 by Light in the Attic Records.
“It’s always been the strength of the music that draws me to compile a project of this nature,” Howes says. “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.”
Don’t feel bad if reading the name Willie Dunn doesn’t immediately ring a bell. For many us it won’t, and that’s what Howes hopes to change with these projects.
NNA Vol.1 is a collection of music by indigenous singers, songwriters, and poets from Canada, the United States, Mexico, and Greenland made between the ’60s and ’80s. The music on NNA Vol. 1 was, for the most part, released in very small quantities on vinyl and had become extremely rare. Volume one—released in November 2014—features 23 artists from Canada and Alaska.
The compilation was released to much acclaim, including a feature in Rolling Stone magazine. “The media and record buying public have definitely resonated with NNA,” Howes says of its success, “it’s a testament to the power of the music and the conviction of the artists.”
It’s also a testament to Howes’ ability to find entire genres of under-appreciated musical gems. NNA Vol. 1 represents an entire generation of Aboriginal popular music, which had been relegated to the sidelines of history. With over a decade of exhaustive searching by Howes, the artists are now getting their due.
The music on NNA Vol. 1 is as diverse as it is compelling. You will hear shades of music reflective of the time it was created: Neil Young, Velvet Underground, Johnny Cash, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and many more, coming from all corners of Canada and Alaska.
Although the music is reflective of the era, the stories told by the artists are reflective of a wide-ranging culture, one that has so often been neglected, ignored, and marginalized. NNA Vol. 1 gives the listener of glimpse of this world through the lens of the talented musicians who were living in it every day.
Instead of hearing about these stories through a news report or a political forum, the message is coming from creative minds impassioned enough to create something based on their own experiences.
“Kill’n Your Mind,” by Willy Mitchell and the Desert River Band, one of the tracks featured on NNA Vol. 1.
Which brings us back to Willie Dunn, whose track “Pity the Country” leads off NNA Vol.1. Dunn was successful in his own right, releasing four albums of folk-inspired tunes, was a one-time politician for the federal New Democratic Party, and was a filmmaker for the National Film Board, where he created short film The Ballad of Crowfoot.
Despite all of this, he has largely been forgotten—a common thread that connects many of the artists on NNA Vol. 1.
However, with the continued success of NNA Vol. 1 and Howes’ commitment to the project—volume two is currently in production—these artists are taking their rightful place in our musical culture alongside the Oscar Petersons and Gordon Lighfoots that already feature so prominently in our musical history.
For Howes, it continues to be about the music and the artists that created it. “It’s been a total honour to meet so many of my musical heroes during this journey,” says Howes. “We would have no projects to work on without their cultural contributions and their involvement is imperative.”
And, without Howes, none of us would know where to listen.
Read my full interview with Kevin “Sipreano” Howes here.