Regional Music Spotlight: Northwest Territories

August 12, 2015

musicnwt logo_840px

Music Association Name: Music NWT

Location: Yellowknife

What are some of the musical highlights from the territory over the past year? 

We have a lot of various festivals throughout the North, such as the Snowking Winter Festival that takes place in March in Yellowknife. They have feature performances every single day for six days of the week, running music in the afternoon and the evening with a few huge weekend bashes.

The “Snowking” is a big music fan, so he programs the festival with lots of performances. They build a castle with snow, and put a huge stage inside it. It’s really fun.

Shortly after that is the Long John Jamboree, a newer winter festival that replaced Caribou Carnival, and features a bunch of performances.

In May, there is also the Yellowknife Music Festival, which is our classical music festival presented by Classics On Stage Yellowknife. There’s actually a considerable amount of classical musicians in the North, mostly in Yellowknife, Hay River and Fort Smith. There’s a couple of different choirs and instrumental ensembles that like to gather together.

In early July there is the Open Sky Festival in Fort Simpson, which is in the Dehcho region of our territory. Open Sky is a visual and performing arts festival. Fort Simpson is like a mecca for artists. There are lots of musicians and visual artists there. I call it “The Tropics of the North,” because the trees are really tall and it’s really lush and beautiful. Hay River also has their Hay Days Festival—there are a lot of musicians in that region of the territory, as well.

Our flagship festival is Folk on the Rocks Music Festival, which just celebrated their 35th anniversary. This year, the executive director really wanted to focus on Northern artists, so there were a lot of great artists from the North that performed there. Their mandate has always been to present 50 to 60 percent Northern artists, in addition to big headline acts that are brought up from the South. That’s where I started performing when I was eight years old, so I’ve had a long relationship with that festival, and it’s been a really huge part of the fabric of musical life in the North

Leela Gilday_840pxJUNO Award-winning singer-songwriter Leela Gilday got her start at Folk on the Rocks.

In Inuvik, there’s the Great Northern Arts Festival, a 10-day, mostly, visual arts festival that also has a mix of traditional and contemporary artists. They’ve previously had performers, like the Inuvik Drummers & Dancers, Leanne Goose, Veronica and Dave Johnny, and Quantum Tangle.

The Old Town Ramble & Ride is another Yellowknife festival that features YK bands, singer-songwriters, fiddlers, and this year there was even a drone concert.

The Land of the Pingos Music Festival in Tuktoyaktuk is another good one, and then there’s also the Midway Lake Music Festival just outside of Fort McPherson, near the Dempster Highway. It’s one of our premier festivals with old-time fiddlers, drum dancers, and traditional bands. It’s a really great feature fest of the Mackenzie Delta region.

Western Arctic Moving Pictures’ 48-Hour Music Video Contest is another cool event that usually happens in August. Western Arctic Moving Pictures (WAMP) is a territorial film association, and for the past five years they’ve gotten filmmakers and musicians to compete in a 48-hour music video-making contest.

The Bushman’s song “MONOCHROMATIX” with videographers Artless Collective (Jay Bulckaert & Pablo Saravanja) won 2nd place in the 2014 48-Hour Music Video Contest. 

There were a couple of special project that have happened this year, as well—Spectacular NWT Days 2015, an exhibit that took place in conjunction with Winterlude festival in Ottawa. Pat Braden, Digawolf, Sinister Oculus, William Greenland, some NWT youth, and myself went to Ottawa as a contingent to put a spotlight on NWT artists. It sort of echoed what we did a few years earlier with Northern Scene when we all went down there en masse and took over Ottawa.

A teaser of Sinister Oculous’ show at the Northern Arts and Cultural Centre earlier this year.

I also worked on a really amazing project earlier this year, and it was launched in May. It was a collaboration between 11 different artists in the NWT. We were approached by the Health and Social Services department to write a song about reducing the stigma of mental health. It was kind of in answer to the video that Amelia Curran had done about mental health stigma. It’s called “You’re Not Alone.”

The song, “You’re Not Alone,” features 11 Northern artists and was created to bring awareness to mental health issues.

There was a huge arts outreach project that was done that involved 70 students in six different communities in the Northwest Territories. The JUNO Award-winning Gryphon Trio from Ottawa, and a local composer, named Carmen Braden, worked with school kids over the course of a year to write poetry on the four elements. They then composed music and put it to their poetry. These 70 students all converged in Yellowknife at the Northern Arts and Cultural Centre (NACC) and performed onstage with The Gryphon Trio. It was the biggest outreach-project in terms of classical music that’s taken place in the North to date.

The Aurora Fiddle Society also presents workshops all year round, with a particularly good workshop for youth. There is a good core of youth fiddlers here in the North, which is part of a long history of fiddling and fiddling workshops in the North. That’s a big part of the fabric of life in the North, as well. Sometimes families will pass the tradition down or youth will learn on their own.

Kole Crook was our young fiddling star, who died in a plane crash when he was 27. He was a youth role model, he played at lots of festivals and was starting to tour outside of the territories, so losing him was a big loss for the community. The Kole Crook Fiddle Association was formed in his memory. That’s still going strong and they do a lot of workshops for youth.

What are some of the recent accomplishments made by Music NWT, specifically?

One of our goals is to provide support to our export-ready artists. This year, at BreakOut West, Digawolf and myself are showcasing, and our music association is sponsoring one of the receptions.

We hosted the fourth Great Northern Music Conference in March, gathering participants from five different NWT communities, funders and industry professionals for workshops and showcases. We’re finding some momentum with the event, and hope to build that into a greater movement next year.

Digawolf’s “The Trapper.”

In February we partnered with WAMP for an instrument-building workshop with Andy Rudolph, and that was very successful. This summer, we partnered with the Yellowknife Farmers Market to present a weekly series of performances each Tuesday in conjunction with the market. It’s a well-attended event and the first outdoor live music series that Yellowknife has ever seen. There are two performers that play weekly.

Thirteen years ago, I helped start Music NWT as a founding board member. For me, as a full-time musician and touring artist, I want to help build the musical infrastructure in the North, so that other young artists and unique musicians can get some support—the support that I didn’t have.

What are some of the challenges faced by Music NWT and Northern artists?

We are an entirely volunteer-run board, so it’s very difficult to keep people involved. That being said, we have a lot of dedicated people that love music and are committed to developing more infrastructure and fostering the growth of our NWT artists.

Some of the artist challenges are the very high cost of living in the Northwest Territories. I can really speak to this because I have been a full-time artist for the past 15 years. The cost of living is only higher in Nunavut.

We also have a low population though we have a large land mass. There are only 43,000 people in the Northwest Territories, so most people cannot make a living playing music in the NWT. We just don’t have the audience.

An exception to that is one of our hardest-working bands, Welder’s Daughter. They make a full-time living out of playing six months at the Gold Range in Yellowknife and six months at the Mad Trapper in Inuvik five nights a week—but they are an anomaly.

Our performing arts funding is also less than other provinces and territories per capita. It has been changing for the better in the last 10 years. Our government has definitely been taking notice and is very supportive of artists, but we have had to work a little harder as NWT artists in contrast with other Northern territories.

Who are some of the NWT acts that should be on Canada’s radar?

In terms of JUNO Award and Western Canadian Music Award nominations, I’m the only artist that was recognized this year, for my album, Heart of the People (October 2014). But there are lots of other artists that are bringing attention to the North, too. William Greenland was nominated for an Indigenous Music Award for his new traditional flute album. In fact, he’s the only Canadian to be nominated in the flute category. All of the other artists are American.

Geronimo Paulette from Fort Smith is a heavy metal artist that is also nominated for an Indigenous Music Award. He’s a young guy that’s super cool. He’s a great musician. We’re very proud of those nominations.

Quantum Tangle is a cool new duo that consists of Grey Gritt and Tiffany Ayalik. They incorporate throat singing, storytelling, looping, guitar, vocals and harmonies into their performances. They are ones to watch, for sure.

Carmen Braden is a young and up-and-coming composer, who just finished her Master’s degree at the University of Calgary in Acoustic Ecology or electro-acoustic music. She does soundscapes that are rooted in both classical and contemporary sounds.

There’s also Mary Caroline Cox, blues group Priscilla’s Revenge, Aaron “Godson” Hernandez, our resident NWT rapper, and the New North Collective, which features members from the Yukon, NWT and Nunavut, including NWT artists Digawolf and Pat Braden. Those are the people that are making waves right now.

“Like This / It’s Over” by Godson.

What else do you want people to know about the NWT music scene, and where would you tell a visitor to go see live music?

In the last couple of years, live music venues in Yellowknife are starting to blow up again. We have our concerts, our jams, our open stages, and our regular house bands that play around town. Some good places to check out would be The Black Knight, which often features touring artists or locals artists.

The NACC have programming from September to June with world-class performers. They also run a mentorship program with export-ready Northern artists to help develop them further, followed by a show there each year. It’s a great program for artists.

There’s also The Cellar Bar and Grill, Twist, After 8 Pub, the Gold Range, where they have music five days a week, and the Javaroma coffee shop has a great open mic every Saturday night. During the summertime, the Wildcat Café—the oldest restaurant in Yellowknife—will occasionally have performances on their deck, as well.

What I really want the rest of Canada to know about our music scene is that we are very diverse. We have a lot of unique voices and our Northern artists like to express themselves in a diversity of genres, like electro-acoustic, rap, singer-songwriter, rock, heavy metal, jazz, and blues, as well as all of the traditional music. There is always a drum dance in Ndilo or Dettah (Yellowknives and Akaitcho Dene Communities just outside of Yellowknife) for holidays or special occasions.

What are you looking forward to in the coming year(s)?

We are looking to partner up with different organizations for more youth initiatives, but would also like to work more closely with NACC, Folk on the Rocks and the Northwest Territories government to have a more cohesive arts development strategy. We would also like to do more outreach in isolated communities. That’s a big part of our mandate—to be a territorial music association, not just a local one.

We’re also working to establish a NWT Music Hall of Fame to honour some of the long-time musicians from all over the Northwest Territories, such as George Tuccaro, Louis Goose, Johnny Landry, who wrote “Hina Na Ho (Celebration)” that Susan Aglukark covered, Richard Lafferty, elder statesman of fiddling Charlie Furlong, and others. That’s a really exciting project that’s in the works for sometime next year. We have just started brainstorming and there is a list of at least 30 people that we’d like to include. We would also love to host a music event in the future. Wwe have the infrastructure to do it.


Compiled via interview with Leela Gilday, founding board member at Music NWT, and JUNO Award-winning singer-songwriter

For all of the latest updates from Music NWT, go to or follow them on Twitter @musicnwt.

About the Author

Julijana Capone

Originally from Winnipeg, Julijana is NMC’s senior publicist and the managing editor of Amplify. In addition to her role at NMC, she is the founder of Light of Day Publicity, a company she formed to promote the work of emerging Canadian artists.

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