For 27 years now, Présence Autochtone (Montreal First Peoples Festival) has been championing the lives and culture of the indigenous people of Canada and further afield, at its annual festival in the Quebec Province city. What was originally a somewhat niche film festival, has grown into a much larger event encompassing all of the arts. Films are still very much at its core, with offerings from across the globe showing in cinemas and other venues around the city. Documentaries make up a large part of the feature film programme, as there are still many issues to be investigated and tackled, but the fictional films also address them, and often in a more palatable way. And some films cross into both genres, such as Kuun metsän Kaisa, which mixed fairytales, animation, archive footage and social history of the Skolt Sami people of Lapland. The film went on to win the festival’s best film and best documentary awards.
What was particularly encouraging to see was not only the number of short films showing, but also how the quality has also grown with the quantity. This can primarily be attributed to the ongoing work that Wapikoni Mobile is doing, taking filmmaking and other media skills to the First Nations communities. They work almost exclusively with the youth, many of whom are disillusioned and unsure of their identities and future. Through filmmaking, they are able to explore the conundrum between tradition and today’s digital, social-media driven world. The project is uncovering a lot of talented young storytellers, who would otherwise have trouble expressing themselves.
The amalgamation of heritage and modernity was perfectly displayed in the art exhibition From Smoke to Cyber Signals at Espace Culturel Ashukan. Artist Carmen Hathaway has combined digital and 3D art with ideas from traditional stories and myths, which are then printed onto canvas. Some of the images are very finally detailed and look like they are created with brush and paint or airbrushes.
This fusion of traditional and contemporary cultures was also extended to the food that was on offer in Place des Festivals, which is very much the public face of the festival, with its giant teepee dominating the square in the downtown entertainment quarter. Usually when one talks about fusion food, one thinks of traditional food that has been spoilt by Westerners that think they can improve on dishes that have been perfected over centuries and millennia (I’m specifically thinking of Indian and Middle Eastern/North African food, where the combination of ingredients and spices take on health-giving properties). However, in this case, indigenous chef George Lesner has taken a different approach.
“I want to define what indigenous food is. I do not think it solely consists of ingredients and recipes from pre-colonial contact. That was such a long time ago, and what has happened to our land, people, culture and relations have changed our diets and needs dramatically over the years. What we cooked 600 years ago to survive was completely different to what we cooked when our meat was taken away by colonisers, and rotten flour was given to us instead. With my food, I want to represent our peoples’ struggles, and innovations we were forced to go through. I want to showcase that we are a contemporary peoples, as well as make a statement that we may have had our land taken away. Colonisers may have taken many of our lives but our resilient spirit is still here, and our resistance is not going anywhere.”
As such, he has created dishes that use local ingredients and are prepared with influences of French cuisine, that appeal to the sophisticated palettes of the Quebecois.
Another area where cultural fusion works particularly well is music. It is a universal language that spans the limitations of geography, heritage and time. Ignoring the most pretentious of musical snobs and purists, for most people born post WW2, rock music is what they were raised on. Along with blues and jazz, it is possibly the greatest contribution to modern culture the US has made.
Our voices, and drums, are our most primordial means of communication, and listening to the Buffalo Hat Singers, you can feel that right to the core of your being. For me, if music doesn’t have live drumming it is lacking its heart and soul. Of course, a great voice accompanied by a solo guitar also works.
Music has become a vital and integral part of the festival, and through the free concerts in Place des Festivals, it is now the most popular part. The fact that Présence Autochtone coincides with Osheaga, now Canada’s biggest music festival, happening a short Metro ride away, hasn’t dampened enthusiasm. If Osheaga is Glastonbury, then this is WOMAD. The “world music” aspect was further highlighted this year through the festival’s collaboration with Vive 375, a year-long celebration of Montreal’s 375th anniversary.
Présence Autochtone is not only a celebration of the aboriginal heritage of Canada and the Americas, but the indigenous people around the world that have suffered at the hands of European Christians and imperialists. The festival’s annual parade and presentation has always celebrated the city’s diverse cultures, which make it the vibrant place it is, which is especially evident during the balmy summer months.
Thursday evening saw Silla + Rise performing a fascinating mix of Inuit throat singing combined with electronic beats. Some of the songs were freeform, like hip-hop or even jazz scatting. A rather fascinating and unique sound.
Like the previously mentioned Wapikoni, Musique Nomade is an initiative for indigenous musicians to record, promote and distribute their music. The music available is as diverse as the nations it comes from, and with a multitude of influences. This was perfectly displayed at Nikamotan MTL, a showcase of Musique Nomade artists that featured individual performances and duets, embracing styles from blues to hip-hop to country to reggae.
This musical cross-pollination continued on the Saturday evening with Nova Stella, which incorporated a panoply of musicians and spoken-word artists from across the city’s émigré communities. As with the previous night’s Nikamotan MTL, there were duets from unlikely pairings of diverse performers. Rap and hip-hop were fairly predominant, but the highlights were Congolese singer Pierre Kwenders, who mixes rumba with electronic beats and a riveting stage presence; Shauit, a regular at the festival, performed original reggae songs in his native Innu tongue; and Nomadic Massive, an international collective of musicians whose upbeat mix of primarily hip-hop and soul, proved to be a crowd-pleasing finale to the evening.
The importance of first nation people’s contribution to contemporary music was further underlined in the closing night film Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World. The film’s title comes from the classic instrumental by Link Wray, who was a native American. Released in 1958 it was a groundbreaking guitar tune that predates the current garage and surf rock by 50 years, and was a major influence on the world’s great rock guitarists such as Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page. Despite this, Wray’s heritage was unknown or hidden from the general public.
As I previously said, contemporary (20th century) American music, which encompasses jazz, blues, folk and rock, is arguably the nation’s greatest contribution to world culture, and for the most part is attributed to African-Americans, but this film reveals that the First Nations’ people played a far more influential role than is generally known. Part of this is due to the fact that the Indians were even more marginalised and persecuted than the blacks, and their story suppressed (in much the same way as the genocide of Roma/Sinti in Nazi Germany is). The film investigates the cross-pollination of Afro-American and First Nations’ people, both physically and culturally. Jimi Hendrix is undoubtedly one of the most famous sons. The film also looks at other influential artists such as blues singer Charley Patton, jazz singer Mildred Bailey, the aforementioned rock guitarists Link Wray, protest folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie (who became a victim of a CIA/FBI witch hunt), The Band’s Robbie Robertson, as well as the tragic story of prodigious guitarist Jesse Ed Davies. The film also interviews many luminaries from the music world who all attest to the important contributions and influence of these musicians, and the music of the indigenous people in general.
This is a brilliant, eye-opening documentary that adds a vital chapter to the origins of modern music, and served as fitting coda to the festival that had been celebrating the universality of music, as well as highlighting, through its film programming, the ongoing struggles, and triumphs, of aboriginal people throughout North America and the rest of the world.
Should you ever find yourself in Montreal in the summer months, possibly to take in the plethora of high-profile festivals, take time out to explore the offerings of Présence Autochtone, with its free music concerts and thought-provoking films.