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American Roots

On Nov. 25, Light in the Attic Records releases the most ambitious compilation in the label’s history. Native North America (Vol. 1): Aboriginal Folk, Rock, and Country 1966–1985 collects 34 recordings by 23 artists and groups from Canada and Alaska, all made by members of Alaska Native and First Nations tribes. The project, over a decade in the making, comes from the label responsible for unearthing the career of Sixto Rodriguez, subject of the Oscar-winning Searching for Sugar Man documentary, and for generating Seattle’s Wheedle’s Groove revival.

“A lot of eyes are on Light in the Attic since the Rodriguez work and the success of Searching for Sugar Man,” says Kevin “Sipreano” Howes, the Vancouver-based DJ, writer and musicologist who curated the Native collection. “People might be looking to their reissues, but this is a cultural release, a spiritual release even, not just an obscure album from the ’70s. Not to take away from that, but this has a far greater weight as far as I’m concerned.”

Alaska Natives along with First Nations peoples—the name applied to Canada’s pre-Columbian natives—have a millennia-long legacy across the upper reaches of the continent, spanning dozens of tribes, languages and cultures. Starting in the 1950s, at the dawn of Canada’s homegrown music industry, musicians around the world began absorbing the sounds of pop music, first American country and folk and later rock ’n’ roll. First Nations musicians were no different. As pop spread via radio and vinyl to the farthest corners of a country full of far corners, they too were influenced by Johnny Cash and Neil Young, Bob Dylan and the Beatles.

“It’s fantastic to hear this fusion going on with the artists inspired by these developments in pop culture and combining it with their heritage,” Howes says. Among Native North America’s 34 selections, the music spans genres from country jangle to protest folk to psych rock. Songs are mostly sung in English but there are some native-tongue tunes as well. The only common thread is that each of the performers and bands is Native.

Fifteen years ago, Howes encountered an early album by Willie Dunn, a musician, filmmaker, politician and one of Canada’s only genuine First Nations stars. With that find, Howes was inspired to dig deeper into a musical subgenre he never knew existed.

“The music draws you in, gives an insight into a different perspective,” Howes says. “I’m learning about aboriginal culture through these recordings, about the history of our country.”

For years, he and crate-digging partner Dane Goulet made trips across Canada scouring used record shops, thrift stores and yard sales for obscure vinyl. “You find these records in random remote paces, looking through a box of Barbra Streisand records and come across John Angaiak and you wanna find out more because of the musical merit,” he says.

Research in Canadian music-history texts and online forums revealed next to nothing about the artists whose records he found, many of whom are still alive, living in isolated communities across Canada. “Street-level research” led him to Vancouver Island, Ontario and Quebec, face-to-face with many of the musicians whose music he discovered.

“I got a call from Willie Thrasher”—another of the artists included in the compilation—“and he said talking about the music reminded him of some of the struggles he went through. It was a good thing.”

The interviews Howes conducted comprise much of the exhaustive, 190-page liner notes he wrote. Those notes—rich with history personal and social—could easily form the basis of a college-level musicology course. It’s an invisible history writ in rock ’n’ roll, giving voice to communities little known beyond their own borders. The whole package adds up to an education, sure, but the music stands on its own, beautiful, tragic, impassioned and energized.

If Vol. I is successful, Howes says, he and Light in the Attic have a Lower-48-focused Vol. II ready for subsequent release.

“These projects can only touch on a fraction of the art and music created in those seminal years,” Howes says. “The things they’re singing about, from the ’60s to the ’80s, are just as relevant today, if not more so. Issues of land claims, the environment, rights of Native America people. It’s a timely release. This is just the beginning. The learning continues. Music and culture are endless.”

Photo of Willy Mitchell and the Desert River Band courtesy Light in the Attic

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