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November 7, 2004: Interview with Ian Akiwenzie

November 7, 2004: Interview with Ian Akiwenzie

Interviewer: Franziska von Rosen (FvR)
Interviewee: Ian Akiwensie, Morningstar River Singers
Location: Toronto, Ontario
Filmed by: Pinegrove Productions, Lanark, ON.

Ian Akiwenzie:  My name is Ian Akiwenzie and I sing with Morningstar River Singers.

FvR: Ian, would you talk a bit about the significance of smudging with sage.

Ian When we smudge in the context of the drum, we want to get all those outside influences away, what we might be bringing in. So when we come to that drum we only want good feelings. So when we smudge, it is a way of purifying ourselves and those that sit there at that drum so that no negativity comes around there. We only want good feelings when we are singing. And it projects when we are singing that we have no negativity around that drum.

FvR: What is the significance of using sage?

Ian: Sage is one of our four medicines. You can either use tobacco, cedar, sage or sweetgrass. It is just whatever is available to smudge that drum..

FvR: Would you describe for me the basic structure of the song you were singing.

Ian:  The lead singer will start off the beat, an appropriate beat and timing and heíll let out a lead. And only the lead singer will sing that first part. Itís like a chant; he brings in the melody and heíll sing the melody and thatís the first part of that song. And then the rest of the singers, all of us together, including the lead singer will come in and second that. Weíll sing it and then repeat it. After that part is done youíll hear check beats, sometimes called honour beats and those will come in and thatís right in the middle of the song. And then the second body of the song comes right after that and that is basically the same part as the first but it cuts off after the lead. So you go into the second part, the second body of the song and then you are done. Each time through the whole song is called a push-up. Youíll have four of them in a song. So it is basically repeating that whole thing, four times through. So thatís how itís broken up.

FvR: By push up you mean once through?

Ian: One time through is what we call a push-up. Thatís from the beginning, the lead, right to the end. Thatíll be a push-up, and then you will have one more. Itís usually four times. Sometimes youíll have intertribals and it will be five or six. So the MC or whoever is running the powwow will let you know how many times youíve got to go through. If he says six times, thatís six push-ups.

FvR: I noticed that it is not always the same person leading.

Ian:  Well if you go back ten years or even less there used to be only one lead singer and he was the only one that led. But now there are so many singers coming up, that now theyíre using all the leads. But that first person that does the first lead is usually the lead singer. So if other people are doing leads they are just coming in with that one part. But the lead singer is the one that does the first one. We have six lead singers that do leads, but we only have one boss and thatís the guy you just spoke to (Eddie Robinson) and he does the lead. He sets the right tempo for the drum, for those dancers, and for the appropriate song.  So even though he is not doing the second lead he is still the boss man.

FvR: Can you tell me the significance of the honour beats?

Ian: I have heard a lot of different stories, and some  say they represent those thunder beings or gunshot fire. But those drums were around a long time before the gunfire came.  But for dancers and singers usually it just is, if you listen you know where that song is broken up. When that honour beat comes in, different dancers do different things . Out of respect the traditional dancers will raise their eagle feathers and same with the jingle dress dancers, they will raise their fans and take those prayers up. But itís more of an individual thing. But that honour beat is basically breaking up that song in the middle and when you listen to it you know where you are in the song. You got to keep your ears open when you are dancing.

FvR: What qualities would a judge be looking for in terms of a good drum?

Ian: Well it varies with different powwows. But most judges when they have a ballot and they are judging a drum, they judge all the leads. That the leads are strong and clear and the beat is in unison. You cannot have sticks going off a bit. They all have to be going at the same time, and itís important that all of them are singing the same song. You donít want someone to be singing a different part of some other song. That drum area, usually they want it clean. No garbage, cigarette butts, whatever, things that you bring there. They want that area clean. It is just out of respect for the land and stuff. It reflects on you as a singer, your area. And they want to make sure that the honour beats are straight and that you stop on time. Everybody is singing on time, everybody is singing in unison, like itís one voice. So itís a lot of pressure for singers. Thatís why we practise a lot so that we all sound like one voice.

FvR:  Would you describe for me  your feelings when sitting at the drum.

Ian: It is an awesome feeling. When you are sitting at the drum and your week may have been kind of heavy, and you get there and you see all your brothers and all your friends and you sit at that drum, all that practice that you put in and all that effort, it shows when you sit at that drum and start singing. And when it starts flowing and it starts to speed up your heart starts racing and youíve got this big smile on the inside. You just sing your heart out. And hopefully your spirit shows through and you just sing for the people. And thatís an awesome feeling. It fills you full of pride. It is all that time and effort you put into singing. Yeah itís amazing.

FvR: How much practice does it take?

Ian: Well Iím not done practising. Practising is non stop. You never stop practising. You know, if your ego gets in the way and you think that you are a good singer, you know then you donít practise. But we are always striving to be that much better, because we come up with new songs. Itís not the same songs all the time. So you got to practise them. Make sure you have them down pat. So practising never ends. It is all about practice.

FvR: Ian would you talk about the origin of the song you were singing?

Ian: The type of singing that we do as a drum group is original style, or Northern. Itís just straight vocables. There are no words in the songs. Thatís just the style we prefer to sing. So I composed that song as a straight song and it can be used for intertribals or for whatever the lead singer thinks sees fit. It is all about the tempo. Today we used that song for our grand entry and we felt that it fit for this moment so thatís why we sang it today. It was an honour for me to sing one of my songs.

FvR: Would you consider it to be an honour song?

Ian: Well, every song is pretty much an honour song if it is used appropriately. It comes from my spirit. We were told by a lot of elders and a lot of other singers that an honour song is one that you can sing really hard and that everybody at your group knows, one that will add spirit to the event, wake everybody up, set the tone for whatever purpose it is used for. So yeah, by all means it is an honour song.

FvR: Does the song have a name?

Ian: It is track number 7 on our CD. You know when we sat down and we were naming songs it kind of has a little flavour to it  We like to put names to it; it is about individuality. Thatís called Ogee Style and it kind of sets the tone about who we are as a group and where we are at. You know we could have just called them all straight but we wanted to add names to them. A lot of the songs, if you go back ten, twenty years they just say straight, straight,  grass, or whatever.  We came up in the generation where we listened to different styles of music and we just kind of add our own flair and our own touch to it. I called it Ogee style,  That kind of suits me.

Me and Eddie grew up around the same time listening to that old school hip hop and R&B and whatever. Well itís from the schoolyard we grew up in different areas of Toronto. It is kind of like taking the playground and bringing it to the drum. There is just that good feeling. Thatís who we are, us singers, donít want to be all stoic. We just came to sing straight songs. Suits and ties and thatís all good. Thatís all about your individuality, your spirit. What you bring to that drum. We just happen to bring playground.  Schoolyard. Thatís about it.


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