Monday, September 20, 2010

Rock 'n' rolling off the mother tongue

Art Napoleon addresses a rally opposed to the building of the Site C dam on the Peace River, which would flood is ancestral home. Geoff Howe photo for The Globe and Mail.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
September 20, 2010


Art Napoleon tells a story about himself. He is aged six or so when his teacher conducts a talent show.

Not wanting to be left out, the boy borrows a classmate’s harmonica, an instrument which he has never held before.

He squeaks and honks and fakes it, knowing enough to repeat his own phrasing, making the improvised tune sound like a real song.

He remains a performer at age 49, a man who, in his own words, straddles “two worlds” — his ancestral home in the Peace River Country and his current address in the capital city; one, a milieu where moose is a staple and the other, where Staples is a chain store. His mother tongue is Cree and his second language is English.

He acts and performs standup comedy and makes music. His latest release is a remarkable collection featuring covers of familiar songs by the likes of Smokey Robinson and Hank Williams. The tunes are familiar, though, for most, the lyrics are indecipherable. On the disc, titled “Creeland Covers,” he sings almost exclusively in Cree.

The melding of a half-century of popular music with an ancient language has never been done before, as far as anyone knows, not even by the great Buffy Sainte-Marie, for whom he has been an opening act.

The result is a refreshing take on songs so familiar as to have become aural wallpaper. Sung in Mr. Napoleon’s haunting Nehiyawewin, the dialect of the northern woodlands Cree, one discovers new-found appreciation for the original power of the numbers.

“I started with a whole bucket of songs, a whole canon of artists that I respect and admire,” he said. “Artists that are well received on the Rez scene. They like Nazareth, CCR (Creedence Clearwater Revival), that kind of rock. They like Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, the rootsy country. Merle Haggard. George Jones.”

As a boy, little Arthur grew up on those classics, though his introduction to music came from a grandfather telling ancient stories while accompanying himself on a traditional handheld drum.

Born at the hospital in Pouce Coupe, B.C., the boy was raised by his mother’s parents after her death during his first year of life. His uncles competed in local rodeos, inspiring in the boy not so much a desire to ride horses as to emulate the rodeo clowns. More than once, he inadvertently set afire some props found around the house as he tried to emulate pyrotechnics he had seen.

“Got into mischief,” he said with a chuckle.

Shy away from the stage, a showman came forth when handed a microphone.

A television host and a folk festival stalwart, Mr. Napoleon is also an award-winning children’s entertainer. You can find a hilarious comedy routine on YouTube in which Mr. Napoleon echoes the “I Am Canadian” television-commercial monologue with an “I Am Indigenous” monologue. “I believe in round dances,” he says, “no square dances.”

While Cree can be heard on his earlier albums such as “Siskabush Tales” and “Mocikan: Songs for Learning Cree,” the new release forced him to shoehorn his native tongue into rock and country constructs.

“Certain words are not translatable,” he said. “Certain words in English take a whole sentence in Cree. The other way there are certain words in Cree for which you have to say a sentence, or phrase to describe that.”

For example, the Cree word moskomaw means singing in so powerful a fashion as to bring a listener to tears.

Some concepts simply don’t exist.

“We don’t have a word for 'resource.' We don’t have a word for ‘management.’ We don’t have a word for ‘time.’ ”

Over time he eased his frustrations by taking artistic license with his Cree.

“At first I found it difficult as I was trying to be a perfectionist. Once I relaxed, it got easier and then got better as the process rolled along.

“This is a first crack at it. Next time we’ll satisfy the linguists.”

He sings in Cree Tom Petty’s Wildflowers, John Fogerty’s Long As I Can See the Light, and Neil Young’s Pocahontas, an ironic selection. His cover of the the Beatles’ Rain, originally released by the Fab Four on a single with Paperback Writer, is a killer, while two Hank Williams’ standards — Jambalaya and Weary Blues from Waiting — sound like Cree classics.

The most powerful number on the disc is a stirring folk rendition of Redemption Song. He opens in Cree before switching to English, reworking Bob Marley’s lyrics to express the anguish of his own people: “Oh, pirates took our lands, they saw dollar signs in trees, they drank the creeks and dig their coal, passed around their disease...”

The song then segues into Tracy Chapman’s Talkin’ Bout a Revolution, a medley he was to have performed on Sunday as the emcee during a protest at the Legislature against the construction of a massive hydroelectric dam.

He is no newcomer to politics, having served as an elected councillor and, briefly, as chief of the Salteau First Nation.

The proposed Site C dam on the Peace River would flood some of the lands on which he had trapped squirrels and weasels as a boy growing up on the East Moberly Lake reserve. “Arboreal. Subarctic. Very beautiful,” he said.

It is on those same lands that he hunts the moose that fills his freezer in the city, from which he makes such delicacies as the moose-tongue soup he served on the weekend.

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