Tales from MusicFest: Cris Derksen puts the ‘wow’ in pow-wow

Alberta First Nation cellist headlines unique collaborative

Robert Moyes

Special to The Record

Every year, Vancouver Island MusicFest gets a grant from the B.C. Arts Council that allows them to bring in a group of disparate performers a few days early; these artists, who mostly don’t know each other, work on a special performance that embodies risk-taking creativity and unique musical self-expression. This year the focus is on Cris Derksen, a remarkable First Nations cellist from Alberta.

“This is the diamond of all the collaborations for this year’s festival,” says Doug Cox, the event’s artistic director and executive producer. “For starters, Cris’s own group, the Orchestral Pow-wow, is an incredible combination of pow-wow music, plus a classical horn and string section, and a remarkable hoop dancer,” Cox explains. “To that we’re adding six more musicians ranging from multi-instrumentalist Daniel Lapp to a stunningly gifted traditional singer and dancer from Hawaii. I am so excited about the possibilities for this once-in-a-lifetime performance.”

It’s been said of Derksen – who is part Cree, part Mennonite – that she not only thinks outside the box but lives outside of it as well. Considered a rising star in the multiple genres of classical, world, folk and electronica, Derksen is also respected in aboriginal and queer music scenes. A classic outsider, she has worked with everyone from Kinnie Star to Tanya Tagaq.

Notwithstanding all her hipster credentials and avant-garde aspirations, Derksen is also profoundly drawn to the traditional world of pow-wow music. She spent a year traveling the pow-wow circuit and collaborating with many pow-wow groups. Merging her classical training with the primal energy of pow-wow, Derksen eventually forged her Orchestral Pow-wow Project, a startling synthesis of European classical formalism with the much older traditions of aboriginal musical expression.

Joining Derksen’s pow-wow circle for MusicFest are some brilliant performers guaranteed to add even more richness and texture.

Billed as “deep roots with hot licks,” Britain’s Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin are an award-winning duo and all-round musical melting pot whose influences range from American blues to East Indian classical music. Add in phenomenal technical skill on guitar, harmonica, fiddle, viola, banjo and vocals, and it’s easy to understand why these ex-buskers are riding a huge wave of acclaim.

Offering a complementary form of traditionalism is country singer Jess Lee, a Métis who grew up in a home where Ernest Tubb and Lefty Frizzell were on the stereo.

Of course he started a band and was soon playing country dances throughout the Peace River area, eventually recording several critically acclaimed CDs that merge country and aboriginal themes.

“He’s the finest pure country singer to ever come out of Canada,” declares Cox. “He’s as good as George Jones or Merle Haggard – plus he’s a hell of a good songwriter.”

A whole different world of indigenous experience and musicality comes via Kaumakaiwa Kanaka’ole, a traditional singer and dancer from Hawaii who is “simply stunning” according to Cox.

Kaumakaiwa comes from hula royalty stretching back seven generations. A five-time award winner and recognized as a “master teacher,” Kaumakaiwa is both a riveting dancer and a gifted composer of the chant verses that accompany her deeply spiritual performances.

Rounding out this diverse supergroup is B.C. fiddling legend Daniel Lapp. Well, in truth, he plays a lot of instruments extremely well. Oh, and then there’s his “jazz electronica” quartet and the group of New York classical musicians he’s wrangling into a polka orchestra. In short, Lapp is a one-man band and a key asset to this musical experiment.

“I’m really proud of this collaboration,” states Cox. “For me, they are the most exciting part of the festival,” he adds. “And not only is it great for the audience, but often these groups can be life-changing for the artists, who make new friends and are taken off into new directions.”

–Robert Moyes is a Victoria-based arts journalist with a particular interest in music

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