Entertainment

Indigenous artists who formed record label perform live at Massey Hall, after collaborating virtually for two years


Good music tends to find an audience, given a chance. The trick is getting it in front of audiences to give it that chance.

Such is the thinking behind Ishkodé Records, the new independent record label that formidably talented gal-pals-for-life ShoShona Kish and Amanda Rheaume have been patiently contemplating, cultivating and curating for the past two years amidst the forced stasis of the COVID-19 pandemic.

ShoShona Kish of Digging Roots and Amanda Rheaume have come together to create an Indigenous-focused music label, Ishkodé Records.

Yes, Ishkodé’s primary focus is on Indigenous artists pulled from various points around the “country” of Canada, imposed upon its founders’ ancestors generations ago: Kish is a proud Anishinaabekwe powerhouse from Golden Lake, while the Ottawa-based Rheaume is of Métis heritage. Mainly, though, it’s about giving good music a chance to find an audience. Starting a female-run label boasting a strong roster of Indigenous artists only ranks as a political statement because the music industry and society at large have been set up to render such things anomalous.

It was, thus, a truly joyous occasion two Fridays ago when the entire Ishkodé roster – anthemic folkie Rheaume, Kish and husband Raven Kanatakta’s earthy blues-rock duo Digging Roots, young Cape Breton fiddle whiz Morgan Toney and Toronto singer/composer Evan Aysanabee — came together in person for the first time after two years of “virtual” lockdown-era socialization for an afternoon of live performances and conversation at Massey Hall, to mark the label’s long-delayed official launch. It was an emotional event, to say the least. Not only were the doors to Canada’s most iconic music venue thrown open to some traditionally neglected voices, but the whole crew had never been in the same room before.

“Today was a real kind of realization of the family that we’re building,” said Kish over a jubilant feast with the rest of the Ishkodé gang at a tony Queen East restaurant after the taping, the results of which will be up for all to see on the Massey Hall website in the weeks ahead. “It was amazing. It was really legendary.

Raven Kanatakta and ShoShona Kish of Digging Roots record a performance at Massey Hall with Amanda Rheaume who listens.

“It’s a really important moment right now because people didn’t and maybe still don’t know that Indigenous voices have some place in their universe. There’s just been such a deep systemic silence. There were maybe these outliers that you’ve heard, and rightfully so, like Buffy Sainte-Marie but there’s this enormous well of creativity coming from a completely different place than the mainstream perspective. And one of the things that I hope is a genuine shift now — like a seismic, foundational shift — is that the doors of Massey Hall are open and Indigenous voices will be on those stages as much as any other humans in the mix. And I think there’s some courage involved because the audiences in these halls and these big places aren’t used to hearing certain things and there needs to be new audiences.”

“Humans are pretty good about this stuff,” adds Rheaume, “but when we’re put in this controlled situation where we’re only fed certain types of music our ears aren’t used to hearing these sounds.”

Indeed, contrary to the mainstream perspective, there exists a thriving, diverse and mutually supportive Indigenous musical community in Canada. It nevertheless remains largely inaudible outside of First Nations, Métis and Inuit circles simply because the domestic music industry has never really bothered to give anyone outside of those circles an opportunity to engage with and appreciate it.

It’s not a problem exclusive to Indigenous musicians, by any means. Canada on the whole doesn’t really engage with the vast creative output consistently pouring forth from our francophone neighbours in Québec and Acadian New Brunswick, for instance, and it took Drake going to the States for a record deal and The Weeknd putting his music out for free online to finally draw global, paradigm-shifting attention to what had long been brewing to deaf industry ears in Toronto’s hip-hop and R&B undergrounds. But when you come from cultures that have historically been swept under the rug by colonization and institutional policy as Kish and Rheaume — who’ve also helped organize two International Indigenous Music Summits together — do, you have to fight extra hard for recognition. Their shared hope is that they can use the positions they’ve established and, as Rheaume puts it, “the connection and the alchemy and the combination of our skills and energies” to make it a little easier for the Indigenous artists coming up behind them to break through.

ShoShona Kish of Digging Roots and Amanda Rheaume have come together to create an Indigenous-focused music label, Ishkodé Records.

“We’ve been working musicians for a long time and we know how it feels to be silenced,” offers Kish.

“Shut out,” says Rheaume.

“And we don’t want that for these guys,” says Kish. “We want to share what we’ve learned and use whatever platform that we have to give them the support that we didn’t have. And put our values at the centre. It’s not that we think our values are the only values, but we haven’t been a part of the conversation.”

Ishkodé will be adding numerous voices to the conversation in the months to follow. Toney’s self-released debut, “First Flight,” gets a relaunch on March 25 under the new imprint and is already nominated for three East Coast Music Awards and a Canadian Folk Music Award. Rheaume’s new LP, “The Spaces In Between,” arrives on May 27 with a Toronto show the day before at El Mocambo. Digging Roots’ new album, Zhawenim , follows on June 17. Aysanabee, meanwhile, will follow up his evocative single “Ocean Breath” with an entire album of songs based upon conversations he had with his grandfather during the COVID lockdown.

The label itself is named for the transformative fire described in Anishinaabe prophecy, but Ishkodé seems well placed to light some fires of its own in the cloistered Canadian music industry.

“When I started playing music, there weren’t the avenues that there are now for Indigenous artists in terms of being represented by an Indigenous music industry,” says Kanatakta. “That Indigenous music industry is growing. There’s not just bands, but there’s people in publicity, people in new social media and on the actual ‘industry’ side of things. When I look back at Motown in the ’60s and ’70s, that was a bunch of artists coming together amidst the Black movement in Detroit when that record company just started to explode. And I think this is the renaissance for Indigenous music right now, when people get to step up. We’re in a place now where we’re proud of who we are and we have a voice and we have a story and it’s time to be told and it’s long overdue, if anything.”

“In some ways, you just want to go out and share your craft and tell stories and be a human,” says Kish. “But in another way, when you come from where I come from where there’s so much struggle every day to survive, you also feel very compelled to be in the fight.”

Ben Rayner is a Toronto-based freelance writer who covers music.

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