Bundled up for the -35 degree winter weather, 12-year-old Susan Illasiak can’t stop singing the verse she wrote and sung with cousins and friends in the Inuvialuit fly-in community of Paulatuk.
“We don’t need drugs to feel happy. We got the land and our family. Even when they go, You’re never alone. They’re a part of your soul, ” sings Illasiak.
Their song, Traditional Spirit, that was recorded by N’we Jinan, an award winning mobile recording team from Quebec, on its first visit to N.W.T.
Weaving cross-Inuit culture and sounds with hip hop, Illasiak and the youth worked from the community’s youth centre with N’we Jinan to develop an original song and soon-to-be-published music video. For the video, Illasiak chose locations including the grave of her auntie.
“I feel really good about it because the song says something hard and it makes me feel the emotions,” says Illasiak. “It means a lot to me, I’ve quit a bit of bad habits from it.”
Since its founding in 2014 and with eight studio volume albums, Quebec-based N’we Jinan has facilitated over 160 songs and 110 music videos written and sung by mainly Indigenous performers across Canada invited to sign up and participate.
Illasiak is also featured throat singing, which she said was one of her favourite parts of the experience.
“I haven’t throat sang since I was nine years old,” she says. “We were in the producer’s room and I asked if I could do the throat singing for the song. It was fun and just something different.
“It makes me feel like an actual Inuit person.”
N’we Jinan, which is ‘we live here’ in James Bay (Eastern) Cree, travelled across Gwich’in and Inuvialuit territory from the end of January to mid-February.
With the first Beaufort Delta-Mackenzie River stop in Aklavik (Jan. 22-27), the crew worked with students in Moose Kerr School in the development of Never Say Die, the community’s motto and which is centred around the impacts of addiction.
“On the first day we present music that has already been prepared and they get to vote on it, then we brainstorm themes and lyrical theme ideas,” says music producer and artist Milan André Boronell. “We guide them [in] the process of writing lyrics which is honestly expressing what you think or feel.”
With his colleague video producer Andrei Savu, the N’we Jinan team was touring with two mentees under their ArtWorks Program. They first became involved from prior video productions including filmmaker Kim Wapachee originally from Cree Nation of Mistissini and Kitigan Zibi Anshinabeg in Quebec.
The beats for Traditional Spirit, Boronell says, were originally created and then voted on by the youth by N’we Jinan mentee and emerging producer Derwin Watt (Auror) of God’s Lake First Nation in Manitoba.
“I am really happy they voted for Derwin’s this time,” Boronell says. “He’s super creative so he produced it with a super unique touch of orchestral elements and hip hop.”
For Boronell, the experiences go beyond the music production.
“It’s become really apparent now that these projects are not about the music or the art,” Boronell says, who has been with N’we Jinan since 2018. “It’s this bonus that you get to keep forever, but it’s the relationships, the experiences, it’s the connections that really opens things up for a lot of these kids.”
He’s been adding a personal touch in the communities he’s been visiting with hand-made guitar string necklaces that youth across Canada all share.
“I come from a past that was not introduced to colonial history, was not taught to me in school,” he says growing up in Montreal. “It’s been so far this four-five year eye-opening experience on what my role is in decolonization, reconciliation, and how we can all play a role.”
“I’ve been just so lucky to find this path in an impactful role and I’m just excited to keep growing, learning and keep breaking down those colonial things and unlearning.”
In the fall the team travelled to across British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario. During the Beaufort Delta tour, another N’we Jinan crew travels to Klemtu and Tl’azt’en Nation, B.C. and then Deer Lake and Constance Lake, Ont.
The N’we Jinan mobile production team have yet to work in Nunavut, PEI, Nova Scotia or New Brunswick says N’we Jinan director David Hodges.
With around $20,000 for the four-day community production, he said The Beaufort Delta Education Council covered the costs for Aklavik’s Moose Kerr School.
The Western Arctic Youth Collective director Alyssa Carpenter said they took the lead in adding more communities and with the support of the Gwich’in Tribal Council and Inuvilauit Regional Corporation, have covered the expenses for the remaining three communities.
“I’ve known their work for a pretty long time,” she says, having toured with the crew in Paulatuk and Tuktoyaktuk. “It really resonates so much and I wanted to see that opportunity happen in a region I grew up in, especially now.
“Something like this is really needed. I’m bringing some young youth who are artists and helpers, as well as mentoring them and what it means to organize and support experiences like this. So that it looks different in each community.”
Ninth Studio Album to be released in June
The completed songs from the four Beaufort Delta communities will be featured on N’we Jinan’s ninth studio volume album set to launch in June with an opening hosted at the Tk’emlups the Secwempc Nation that will feature 35 nations and more than 300 youth performers.
Hodges and Carpenter say they are working to secure funding and fundraising opportunities to have the N.W.T. youth attend.
“That’s legitimate cool,” says 13-year-old Paulatuk co-writer and singer Rihanna Ruben about the release. “It’s going to be cool hearing other people’s music.
“I think it sounds great [with] my friends’ voices and my family members, and it’s really fun to make,” she said about the experience and the anticipation for the region to hear and watch. “I think it would be fun to get out of a small community.
“I hope you are proud of me.”
Karli Zschogner is a video journalist based in Inuvik, Northwest Territories originally from the Parry Sound-Robinson-Huron Treaty region. She holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism from the University of King’s College (Halifax) and in Conflict Studies and Human Rights from the University of Ottawa. She is also a multimedia mentor as an editorial director for The Arctic Youth Network, freelances, and has previously worked for CBC North, Ku’Ku’kwes Indigenous News, and Journalists for Human Rights.