Characteristics of Music: Canada’s Indigenous Music

Jun 30, 2021

What an incredible couple of months we’ve had exploring the unique characteristics of a variety of musical genres.  We started this wild ride with a look at that biggest and ever-changing genre, pop, before moving into jazz, rock and roll, punk, funk, R&B, reggae, swing, country, folk, gospel, and finally, last week, music from the classical period.

This week we’re going to stay on the same theme, but stick a little closer to home with a look at the music of Canada’s native communities.

The First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples of Canada have deep, diverse, and unique cultural traditions that are reflected in their musical styles and genres. And in fact, music is generally seen as an important part of the daily life and spiritual beliefs of many of Canada’s Indigenous peoples.

But it’s important to remember that these are a very diverse people, not a single, monolithic group. As such, this diversity of Indigenous life and music has been recognized by scholars who have tried to classify people according to “culture areas,” where people seem to share cultural ideas.

Indigenous people have their own unique musical traditions, repertoire, and meanings. What’s more, genres performed by Indigenous musicians have crossed boundaries across North America.

With this amazingly rich and broad musical tradition, it is difficult to make sweeping generalizations regarding the music of Canada’s Indigenous people, but there are certain similarities to what we discussed in our folk music blog: predominantly vocal music, with drums, rattles, and flutes commonly found accompanying the singer. Of course, modern Indigenous musicians have, in many cases, been influenced by non-Indigenous genres, often adopting other musical elements, styles, or instruments.

Let’s dive into two main areas of Indigenous music, traditional and contemporary.

Traditional Indigenous Music

Despite the influences from the plethora of non-Indigenous music, the majority of Canada’s native peoples have kept their nation-specific musical traditions alive. In general, traditional music is often broken into two main groups: social music and ceremonial music. Social music is usually made up of songs that are accompanied by drums and rattles, and might include stylized dances that are performed for gatherings and celebrations, which can be closely tied to the community’s local traditions.

Ceremonial music, which may be performed for sweat lodges, sun dances, and Midewiwin ceremonies, is also vocal music, usually with percussion accompaniment. Certain songs are performed for very specific parts of a ceremony and may only be performed in the context of the ceremony. In this way, ceremonial music is thought to be sacred and is never performed in an improper context for the “enjoyment” of the public.

Traditional music, both social and ceremonial, has been, and continues to be, passed from one person to the next through a rich tradition of oral history. This practice persists despite the fact that modern recording technology has changed the way we have shared music, and has accelerated the sharing of songs and traditions between groups of Canada’s Indigenous people.

Traditional songs tend to be short, but they may be repeated several times during a performance. The style of singing will vary with the performer and the stylistic traditions of each nation, but most songs will feature a single melody sung by an individual or group, and specific singing roles for both men and women.

The drums, rattles, and flutes that are often found in traditional Indigenous music are often hand-made from materials found in the local environment, including seeds, tree parts, and animal skins. These instruments often hold a reverence all to themselves, and are sometimes considered animate objects, and are treated with the respect that deserves. Similarly, there are often certain rituals involved in the construction of musical instruments.

Traditional music is generally performed for community audiences, and events like powwows and festivals that feature Indigenous music and dance are often open to non-Indigenous visitors.

Contemporary Music

The music that has come out of Canada’s Indigenous communities is as varied and diverse as the people who make it and has wide appeal to listeners of all genres of music. Just like everywhere else, many Indigenous artists have been influenced by music from outside their community and have created their own music in other styles and genres. Some blend lyrics, narratives, instruments, and singing styles that reflect their Indigenous history, while others create music that isn’t immediately identifiable as Indigenous. And while this blending has been going on for centuries, it’s only relatively recently that non-Indigenous people have taken notice. In fact, the rise and recognition of Indigenous popular music genres among non-Indigenous people went hand in hand with the increasing awareness of Indigenous social issues through the 1960s and ’70s.

Since then, many Indigenous singer-songwriters and performers, including Buffy Sainte Marie, Kashtin, Tom Jackson, Robbie Robertson, Susan Aglukark, Don Francks, Don Ross, Leela Gilday, Derek Miller, Kinnie Starr, Fara Palmer, Wab Kinew, Tanya Tagaq, A Tribe Called Red and many others, have found recognition and acclaim in both Indigenous and mainstream markets.

What’s more, Indigenous artists have created great success in a wide variety of genres, including country, folk, rock, blues, jazz, hip hop, and electronic dance music.

Today, in the 21st century, social commentary has become a key feature of some popular Indigenous music. War Party, a group from Hobbema, Alberta, uses their rap lyrics to discuss life on the reservation from the perspective of a young person. A Tribe Called Red, based out of Ottawa, uses their powwow-inspired dance music to fight back against the appropriation, subjugation, and diminishment of Indigenous people in popular culture.

Another key example is Tanya Tagaq, an Inuit throat singer from Ikaluktuutiak (Cambridge Bay, Nunavut). Her 2014 album, Animism, combined her traditionally-inspired throat-singing with other musical expressions and won her the Polaris Music Prize. Animism is overtly and unapologetically political, with the song “Fracking” taking aim at the hydraulic fracking industry and its supporters.

Of course, the most important thing to remember about Canada’s Indigenous music is that it is as varied and complex as the people that create it. What we have talked about here today is but a small sampling of the breadth and beauty of the music created by the native peoples of this create land. The best way to learn and appreciate these artists is to allow yourself to explore and experience as much of it as you can while supporting your local Indigenous artists and performers.

It is time for you to start your own musical journey? There’s no time like the present to get going! Take a look at all our classes and programs, many of which are now available online, and join our professional instructors here at The Music Studio today! And if you’ve got musically inclined kids, take a look at our summer camp programs and sign up while there’s still space!