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This article explores the expression and affirmation of the cultural identities of Canada’s indigenous peoples through the medium of popular music, and spe- cifically in the form of a new genre of (Canadian) popular music here labelled “Aboriginal Rock.” As exemplified in recent work by Robbie Robertson (whose song “Making A Noise” is used as a paradigmatic example) and other artists of Aboriginal descent, including Susan Aglukark, Kashtin, Buffy Sainte- Marie and Laura Vinson, Aboriginal Rock is defined musically by the blending of elements of indigenous music and culture with conventions of modern rock and popular music, and lyrically by the articulation and expression of the so- cial concerns, political claims and/or cultural identities of Canada’s many and diverse Indian, Inuit and Métis peoples. The analysis situates the emergence of the new genre in the late 1980s and early 1990s in the context of a model of musical syncretism which emphasizes the importance of changes in popular music/popular culture and in the wider socio-political environment among the conditions for such musical syntheses to occur. Finally, the discussion turns to the politics of Aboriginal Rock in terms of its functions and its location in a “negotiated space” between cultures and musical traditions.

The main title of this article is taken from the burden line of the song “Making a Noise” from the ground-breaking 1998 album, Contact From The Under- world Of Redboy, by Robbie Robertson. Both musically and lyrically, the song exemplifies a new genre of Canadian popular music here labelled “Aboriginal Rock.” This genre is characterised musically by the fusion or syncretism of elements of indigenous musical and cultural traditions with conventions of contemporary rock and popular music, and lyrically by the expression or ar- ticulation of the social concerns, political claims and/or cultural identities of Canada’s Aboriginal peoples, the many and diverse Indian, Inuit and Métis cultures. 

Laura Vinson
 is an Alberta-born Métis singer/songwriter of French/Cree and English/Cherokee descent. After singing contemporary folk at university, then briefly fronting the rock band Bitter Suite, she became best known for her work in the country genre with her band, Red Wyng, with whom she recorded four albums between 1978 and 1986. In the early 1990s, she re-emerged with a new band, Laura Vinson and Free Spirit, with whom she has released three albums, Rise Like A Phoenix (1992—the title refers to Vinson’s aspirations for Aboriginal culture), Voices On The Wind (1995) and Point Of The Arrow (1999). Vinson’s music is an eclectic mix of musical styles, incorporating ele- ments of reggae, tex-mex and zydeco, urban folk, country-rock and traditional Aboriginal conventions. Electric guitars co-exist with accordions and penny whistles, traditional chants and drumbeats; and in live performance, the band is often supplemented by a troupe of Aboriginal dancers and drummers.

There are strong politico-historical impulses at work in Vinson’s songs. She wants to give indigenous people, especially Aboriginal women, their rightful place in the history books and in contemporary Canada. “Petite Marie” tells the story of “country wives,” Aboriginal women taken as “wives” and then abandoned by the voyageurs who went back home to their “ladies” when the hunting season ended (“Country wives ... it’s their names we should read/in the history books that tell us/who discovered this country”). “Voices on the Wind” laments the loss of a people, as seen through the eyes of women and children left without husbands and fathers after the wars. “Daughters of the Dawn” is about contemporary Aboriginal women as trappers, entrepreneurs and moth- ers, while other recent songs tap into her own family’s story: “Louisiana Purchase” and “Sing the Violin” are based on the respective lives of Vinson’s great-grandmother and her grandfather, while “Half breed” (discussed further below) addresses the issue of racial prejudice from the perspective of her own Métis people.

For Laura Vinson, the political significance of Aboriginal Rock lies in its edu- cational potential as a means of informing indigenous people, especially the young, about their own heritage and culture, as well as educating the wider, non-Aboriginal, society. “This is part of what we would like to be able to do with the music—to enlighten ourselves as well as the dominant culture as to what has happened in the past and about our place in the world today.” 43 Vin- son reports that, in her other career as a social worker, many of the Aboriginal teenagers she works with “would rather be white.” According to Vinson: So many of them haven’t been brought up with the culture and haven’t been brought up with the truth, that they think it would be much easier to be white... [But] they’ll never be white. They’ll never look white. They’ll suffer that. And the sooner we can teach them that what they are part of is very beautiful, and has been done a very great deal of wrong, and therefore the problems we have stem from this generational grief, not because we are a bunch of screw- ups... the better off they are going to be.

On stage with Free Spirit, when performing her song “Voices on the Wind,” Vinson tells her audiences about the ten million Native North Americans who died, from war, disease or famine, in the century after European contact. Vin- son suggests “that kind of generational loss has created immense problems for our people and they try and cure it with alcohol and drugs and it doesn’t work. It makes it worse. ...our own people don’t know some of their own stories and their own histories, and ... what a great culture we have ... There’s lots of messages that can be presented through music, other than, ‘Oh, have another beer’."

Another message Vinson presents musically is the experience of her own people, the Métis, recognised neither as status Indians nor as full members of “white” society. She has been performing the song “Half Breed” since her Top Forty country days in the late 1970s, but the musical synthesis in the new version on her 1999 album, Point Of The Arrow, lends added meaning to the lyrics. The song opens with drummers and powwow-style chants, which give way to acoustic guitar, fiddle and a moderately paced country-rock beat, sup- porting Vinson’s powerful voice:

Some say that I am English and some they call me French,

some even call me squaw but I pretend that I don’t hear them.

Some say you don’t look Indian, what are you doing here,
prejudice works both ways I fear.

(Ch) Half of a half breed, somewhere in between I am a Métis, never what I seem

No treaty rights, no place like whites
Métis don’t fit in society’s scheme
Half breed don’t fit in this country’s dream ...

Subsequently, after extended solos from fiddle and Indian flute, the track ends with renewed drumming and chants. Vinson’s new arrangement, with the message of the lyrics sandwiched between traditional indigenous musical forms, serves symbolically to re-emphasise her view that the Métis, and their heritage, are an integral part of the fabric of First Nations culture and history, even if they are not always accepted as such, even by Aboriginal people. 

Half a Half Breed