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What Makes a Good Singer

There was a time when the sound of the drum had ceased at St. Mary's Reserve, the home of members of the Maliseet  First Nation, in New Brunswick, Canada.  The silence lasted for two generations.  Seventeen years ago the drum -- the heartbeat of the nation -- started beating.  “That sound isn't going to get lost again,” said Maggie Paul, the drum keeper for the community and a founding member of the Wabanoag Singers.

The following is an excerpt from a conversation between Maggie Paul and Franziska von Rosen:

Franziska: Maggie, you talk so passionately about needing songs.  What is so important to you about having songs?

Maggie: You see when I sing I am in a spiritual place.  The sound takes me there, just the sound.  You see not too long ago at the house, I was just lying there on the bed and all at once this flower appeared. That was the most beautiful flower that I've seen in my entire life.  It looked like a starflower and it was like velvet and the colour of one burgundy and cranberry mixed together.  In the center of that flower there was a beam of light and it was bright yellow.  When I looked closely at that flower a shimmering voice came out and this voice -- it was a beautiful, beautiful sound.  I know I can make that same sound that high crystal clear shimmering sound.

Franziska: Can you describe that tone?

Maggie: That, that electricity, or thunderbolt or lightning, yeah that lightning when it goes all over, that's what it's like when you're singing.  You can see that energy [Maggie is struggling to describe the sound and uses her hands to help her].  That's what music feels like to me.

Franziska: When it's right.

Maggie: Yes!  [The energy has built up in the room and both Maggie and I simultaneously release it and laugh].

Franziska: What you are telling me Maggie reminds me of something that I heard an Ojibwe elder say about an “original sound” and in the universe he described it as a “shimmering sound” that went out in all directions. He related that sound to the gourd rattle, and described it as the “Creator’s thoughts.”

Maggie: Really!

Franziska: It seems like now we are really talking about the heart of the music and not about certain pieces of music.

Maggie: Yes!  The heart of it.  You know when you feel that music the more you talk about it the deeper you get, and the feeling you get is that energy, that force. [Silence]

Producing that energy or force with the voice will be done in different ways according to region, and  the genre of repertoire within a region. An Ojibwe powwow singer develops a falsetto voice produced deep in the throat  with sound pushed from the diaphragm. In the same community an Ojibwe singer who took part in Midewiwin ceremonies would aim for a  voice produced in the head. (http://www.vocalist.org.uk/voice_registers.html#) Haudenosaunee singers also produce more of a head type of voice as do singers on the east and west coasts of Canada.  Those who participate in powwows may aim to reproduce more of the quality of sound preferred in northern type singing with high falsetto voices.

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