Entertainment

Celebration of Nations: Buffy Sainte-Marie’s musical medicine

John Law

By John Law, Niagara Falls Review

Buffy Sainte-Marie headlines the first-ever Celebration of Nations in St. Catharines this weekend. She plays Friday night at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre. PHOTO: Matt Barnes / Special to Niagara Falls Review

Buffy Sainte-Marie headlines the first-ever Celebration of Nations in St. Catharines this weekend. She plays Friday night at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre. PHOTO: Matt Barnes / Special to Niagara Falls Review

When you call your event Celebration of Nations, there better be one name on the guest list: Buffy Sainte-Marie.

Sure enough, one of Canada's most renowned Indigenous singers, activists and icons anchors the three-day festival happening this weekend at FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in St. Catharines. She performs Friday at Partridge Hall, bringing more than 50 years of music, protesting and compassion to the stage (not to mention an Academy Award for writing Up Where We Belong).

To mark her first Niagara appearance in several years, with a new album on deck (Medicine Songs), Sainte-Marie took some time out for a wide-ranging Q&A with The Review:

Review: You’ll be headlining the first Celebration of Nations here in St. Catharines. From what you see, are events like this - in Niagara or across Canada - having an impact?

BSM: “Sure it's having an impact: on hosts, participants, audiences, everybody. There are a lot of Indigenous people with something to say in grassroots and urban areas across Canada and beyond, and finally various platforms from which people can speak. I think that festivals of thought, music, poetry and sports are all valuable. But I think that even more of us need to get used to being visible as opposed to shy about our observations, and to support one another's visibility as opposed to falling into the trap of competitive behaviour off the playing field. That is, we need to be getting better at both speaking clearly what we mean at home and publicly, and listening clearly to what our fellow thinkers have in mind both at home and publicly.”

“My own motto these days is Break the Cycle you might see around you or in your family: bullying, abuse, drugs and alcohol. Have the courage to let go of the peer pressure and break that cycle and live your own life. A lot of Indigenous people inherited their family styles from the sexually repressed bullies and creeps who ran the residential schools, and we need to have the courage to let that go and walk away from ever repeating it.”

Review: It has now been 53 years since your first album (It’s My Way!) came out, and it still packs a punch. What do remember most about recording it?

BSM: “I was feeling pretty lucky just to be able to record my songs, even though it was a fast process in front of a bunch of business men I didn't know. I thought that the content of some songs - both music and words - were worth trying to get them out there, and I sure didn't know anybody else who would have been willing to sing them, so I gave it my best shot...not that I thought I was much of a singer. But I like songs that have a uniqueness and potential, like Codine or It's My Way. That's still what's fun for me, that drama, that raw storytelling.”

“Musically I was Johnny Appleseed-ing around a lot of guitar licks to my peers at the time. Unexpected progressions, edgy voicings, listening to Delta blues with a degree in Asian philosophy, and writing songs about everything, all styles. I didn't expect a career on the edge of show business, which was a real perk as it turns out. I felt very green recording It's My Way. Hated how I sounded, but the songs were exactly what I had to say.”

Review: There have only been two Buffy Sainte-Marie albums the past two decades, and there were none in the ‘80s. How do you know when it’s time to release a record, and does it still feel important to do?

BSM: “Like a lot of other songwriters I write all the time, but less so when I'm out travelling, so my most creative times aren't when you see me but when I'm invisible. I record demos in my home studio whenever a song pops into my head, or I record it into my phone. Hold them back until I feel like travelling. Then I assemble some demos, make a record, go on the road. No sense in making a record if you're not wanting to go out and bring it to people. There have been times when I just wanted to stay home, raise my family, grow stuff and be human, so that's what I did.”

“I took 16 years off to raise my son, then I made (1992's) Coincidence and Likely Stories because I felt like it. Then I spent a lot of years on the Cradleboard Teaching Project which we modelled in the 90s and 00s. Then I re-recorded a lot of classics and some new songs for Up Where We Belong. But regarding Running for the Drum, I couldn't help myself, I was crazy in love with the songs, put an all Aboriginal band together in Winnipeg and took them everywhere. Cho Cho Fire and No No Keshagesh still rock my soul every time we do them onstage. It's always about the songs for me. If I had to sing boring songs every night, I wouldn't be a singer. (2015's) Power in the Blood has been real energizing too. I love to go onstage with these songs. Now Medicine Songs is about to be released and I can't wait.”

Review: Your activism has always gone hand-in-hand with your music. Was there one event or incident which sparked it?

BSM: “No, there wasn't any one incident that sparked my activism. I was a student majoring in Oriental Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, interested in lots of big ideas that all influenced me and my music. UMass is a sharp school and I had some great professors in logic and world religions, and it gave me an appreciation for seeing unique and sometimes multi-sided perspectives on a subject, which shows up in a lot of my songs.”

“Some songs - I really tried hard, like I would for a thesis: state the facts clearly, make the song bulletproof and a little charming. Sometimes songwriting felt like voting, or expressing an opinion on a blog or op-ed page, and in some cases I really believed the song had a purpose and a potential. Other songs were less cerebral, came to me in a flash and basically said 'hooray for love.'”

Review: Has the pressure of it all ever worn you down? How do you balance Buffy the activist with Buffy the entertainer?

BSM: “Being on the road is like being a UPS package: It's possible to do that tour schedule but you're gonna get banged up out there. Sheesh - last month the airline lost my bag and both my guitars for the entire tour of one-nighters, and I slept in my clothes for six days, and played crappy rental guitars onstage every night. So yeah, there will be days like that.”

“However, I'm more of an artist than a careerist, so going in and out of showbiz has been right for me. That is, I have an actual life to go home to eventually. I only make a record when I feel like going on the road to bring it to people. The album coming out in November, Medicine Songs, is all activist songs and very contemporary, and I'm eager to put the songs to work, whether it's to support people who think like Bernie Sanders or just provide music to like-minded urbans and grass rootsers who feel that my 'big picture' songs support their own private marathons. I've been a pro for a long time and I do have my tricks for surviving on the road. A bed and a bath fixes most things.”

Review: A lot of people forget you’ve actually won an Oscar - the first Indigenous person to ever win one. Is it still in the Smithsonian? How often do you visit it?

BSM: “My Oscar was in the Smithsonian for two years, and now it's in the Canadian Museum for Human Rights where I've visited it three times. However, I am eager for the CMHR to stop soft pedalling the role of the Doctrine of Discovery which promoted Indigenous extermination worldwide, including Canada. At the moment that's rather buried in the fine print and I'm reconsidering my support of CMHR.”

Review: You have felt blacklisted by the American government for years. Do you have any American presence at all now - does it even interest you at this point?

BSM: “Actually I have never 'felt blacklisted by the American government for years,' as urban legend describes. Twenty years after the fact, radio broadcasters convinced me I had been blacklisted, and only then did I see my FBI files, and I only learned about CIA surveillance a few years ago. And it was never the 'American government' who blacklisted me: nobody ever passed an act of Congress against me. It was just two administrations (Johnson's and Nixon's), not the US government. The way it's actually done is that a handful of presidential cronies make nasty phone calls to the networks and the public doesn't hear from that artist anymore. I would still be invited onto the Tonight Show, but instructed to avoid indigenous issues and alternative conflict resolution, and just stick to celebrity chat.”

“Yes, my impact on the American music scene changed, but I thought it was just tastes changing - singers come, singers go - and I was doing fine in the rest of the world, so as a careerist I don't squawk. However, the fact that the American public was denied the impact of my voice, and the voices of other Indigenous artists has always bothered me big time. I should have been heard in Indian Country but was not invited there. Indigenous people have a practical and precious understanding of the Americas I can only describe as matriotism, as opposed to imperialism, and it's still an attitude welcomed by the Bernie Sanders kind of audience.”

Review: Is the recent backlash over John A. Macdonald long overdue? How do you respond to people who believe history should be left alone?

BSM: “I think that public figures of the past need to be reevaluated in terms of their lifetime cover-ups being uncovered. Macdonald, McGill and other politicians beloved by some, were nonetheless involved in slavery and other deliberate acts against Indigenous peoples, and we should be smart enough to relieve them of the intellectual pedestals that political power usually passes along to future generations like us.”

“By the way, most of the slaves in and from Canada were Aboriginal people, either kidnapped from what is now the U.S.A. into Canada, or shipped out of Canada to the Caribbean to work in the mines. Indigenous slavery went on for a very long time after black slavery was made illegal, and apparently was prevalent and accepted at that time. In French there is even a specific word for indigenous slave: panee. For more, read or listen to the new book by Andre Resendez, The Other Slavery.”

jlaw@postmedia.com

  • WHO: Buffy Sainte-Marie, with The Ollivanders
  • WHAT: Celebration of Nations
  • WHEN: Sept. 8, 8 p.m.
  • WHERE: FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre; 250 St. Paul Street; St. Catharines
  • TICKETS: $49 www.firstontariopac.ca

  



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