The legendary documentary filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin makes an incredibly rare musical appearance at this week’s Pop Montreal festival, playing Friday, Sept. 28 at Monument National. (Tickets still available here.) This year Constellation Records reissued her remarkable 30-year-old recording, Bush Lady. I had the immense pleasure of interviewing her for this piece in Maclean’s: about the album, about the time she stopped a riot with just her voice and a drum, about her performances in prisons and residential schools, and about the 1976 film Cold Journey—which, as I write about in The Never-Ending Present, was really the only work of art about residential schools made before an avalanche of hard truths came cascading forward in the late 1980s.
[FYI I didn't know until this year that her name was pronouncedAla-NEECE. I'm not alone. But now you know.]
The full, unedited text of our conversation follows this excerpt from the Maclean’s piece, as a way of introduction:
“Even as a child I was always singing,” says filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin, who has won every award possible in this country for her 46 years making documentaries for the National Film Board. Such is her reputation as a director (she’s now working on her 52nd film) that you’d be forgiven if you didn’t know she was also a musician—not only that, but she’s an unbelievably captivating performer who can hold an audience of hundreds spellbound with just her voice and a single drum. That’s exactly what she did at the National Arts Centre this past February at the Megaphono festival, where the 85-year-old performed a 15-minute set that was one of the most powerful performances I’ve ever seen in my life: part Edith Piaf, part PJ Harvey, entirely herself.
…Her musical career is almost as impressive as her filmography, and yet it’s a secret side of Obomsawin that few even know about. Until now. On June 15, Montreal’s Constellation Records reissued Obomsawin’s one and only album, 1988’s Bush Lady, on its 30th anniversary. Much like another 1988 debut record by a woman who would never record a full-length again—Mary Margaret O’Hara’s Miss America—Bush Lady is an astounding, genre-blurring work with an otherworldly female voice at the centre. It sounds remarkably contemporary, and not at all out of place on the same record label that birthed iconoclasts like Godspeed You Black Emperor and Colin Stetson.
May 28, 2018
Calling from the NFB Montreal office
Bush Lady has had several lives: first a version for the CBC, and then you redid it, and then it's coming out now.
That album came out in 1988. Previous to that, the CBC did [a version of] the album. It was wonderful that they did that. Of course, I didn’t get much money out of it, maybe $250. Then I wanted different music for Bush Lady. Over the years, a lot of people used my voice for selling all kinds of things, and I never got anything. I’m not complaining; that was just the time and I didn’t know any better. Then I thought: I’m going to make my own. I asked for a grant, and got money, and I did my own Bush Lady album with different music for the Bush Lady song. This time, I thought, I’m going to distribute it myself, then I would have the control. Then I found that so humiliating, having to sell the record in stores and then go and collect, and they’d say, ‘Oh, the manager is not here today. We don’t have any more, and you’ll have to go speak to the manager.’ So I just packed up everything and said, ‘That’s it, I’m not going two feet into a store.’
Every musician has gone through that.
I guess you have to go through that yourself to understand. So I never went any further. It’s only because [the NFB’s] Frederic Savard went to someone’s office here [at the NFB] and saw the cover of my album and said, ‘What’s this?’ The woman said, ‘Oh, Alanis did this a long time ago.’ He asked me for one, he wanted to buy one. I said, ‘Buy one? I’ll give it to you.’ Then he went on to sell every one I had left. The first person who bought one was the commissioner for [Utrecht festival] Le Guess Who. I ended up doing a concert there. I was so afraid. I had not done a concert in many years. I still sing, a chant or two, but not a full concert, which is what I did. I don’t mind telling you that I was so scared that I was dying before getting on the stage. But I was very well received there. It was incredible. I’m 85 years old!
So the CBC record went only to radio, or was it for sale?
No, it was for sale.
I know they did a whole series recording people like Willie Thrasher.
Yes, it was part of the same series.
The arrangements around you and your voice are so lovely. It struck me how much it has in common with the music that comes out on Constellation, the label that’s putting it out now: droning violin, very atmospheric, very contemporary. Were you familiar with other music on Constellation?
I didn’t know them at all. Just lately that I met them. When I was at Le Guess Who I saw a performer they had done an album with, it was very interesting [Jerusalem My Heart]. It was again through Fred Savard that I met those people. Radwan [Moumneh], they were very nice to me.
Was that Radwan’s band backing you up?
No, it was some musicians they found there, local musicians. They were really wonderful.
Around the time you made that record, you made the film No Address, which I just watched, I’d never seen it before. The music in that sounds similar to me.
It’s the same musician, Dominic Tremblay, who plays the violin. In those years, in the ’80s, there were times where there were performances in Montreal where I would sing, and he would come up and accompany me and I just loved his music. When we did the festival in the ’70s, when the James Bay dam was in question, and the Cree people were going to court, someone organized a big festival here to make the situation known. They asked me to be in charge of Indigenous performers, inviting them here. We did a lot of concerts.
We did a big one at Places des Arts and one at Arena Paul Sauvé. There was almost a riot in there. There was a poet, [Claude] Péloquin, who had written a poem about the James Bay dam, about the Cree people. It was horrible. It said things like, ‘There are no more Indians. They eat beans out of a can just like we do. They don’t hunt anymore. There is going to be a dam.’ I thought a riot would occur, the first time he did it at Concordia.
Then when we were at Paul Sauvé, the people said, ‘Oh, Péloquin is here. He wants to do something.’ I said, ‘I do not want him around. I do not want him coming on that stage.’ This person kept coming back and saying, ‘Oh, he’s so upset. His audience is waiting for him.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m sorry, but that poem is going to create a war. I do not want him here.’ He came back and said, ‘He said he’s not going to do the poem.’ I said, ‘Well, if he’s not, that’s okay, then.’
He comes on, the first thing he did was say, ‘The people in charge don’t want me to recite my poetry, and I have this poem and they’re against it.’ And he starts reciting the poem. I was so scared, I thought there was going to be a riot. The sculptor, [Armand] Vaillancourt, was in the audience. When Péloquin started reciting the poem you could hear all these chairs moving, there was a lot of Indigenous people in the audience. I thought, oh God, there’s going to be a massacre. Vaillancourt ran to the stage—it was a high stage, with no stairs, he looked like a spider getting up there, I don’t know how he did it—he grabbed the microphone from Péloquin and he said, ‘That’s not true what you’re saying! There are Indian people here, and it’s their territory,’ and there was this big fight on the stage. These guys came on and removed the two of them.
I’m standing in the sidelines watching this and I am so disturbed. So they said, ‘Alanis, you gotta go on! You’re the only one who can stop this riot!’ They practically pushed me on the stage with my drum. I was shaking, I was so nervous. All this noise in the audience: people yelling, chairs moving. I start playing my drum and start singing slowly. It got quiet and people sat down. I was still full of very deep feelings. Dominic Tremblay then comes on the stage and starts playing violin with me. I will never forget this as long as I live. It was so beautiful. He had accompanied me before, but I cannot explain the feeling I had this night. I really felt he understood my feelings when I’m singing, and what I was talking about. This is why I wanted him to redo the music for me.
So that was in Paul Sauvé?
Yes, it’s a big place. At the time it was a very important place for concerts. It was a big hall. [held 4,000 people, near Beaubien Est., demolished in 1992]
The film you made about the James Bay concerts, that was called Amisk, yes?
Yes. Did you see it?
No, I don’t know how—it’s not on the NFB website, and it’s not in my library system.
They’re supposed to have it on the site now. [ed: they don't.] That’s what they told us. I didn’t have a lot of money to make that film, so it’s not as rich as the films I make today. But the performances are wonderful. It helps us have something about the history of the James Bay dam.
I was wondering if that’s the only time you’ve made a film about music?
The film was not about music, it was about the injustice of the dam and how they were treating the Cree. We did these concerts and this festival in Montreal to attract people to the story. “Amisk” means beaver in Cree. Amisk make lots of dams.
But there is a lot of music in the film, yes? From the concerts?
Yes. From Places des Arts. I don’t think we filmed the Paul Sauvé Arena. We have the sound from that, but not images. It was so awful, I tell you.
Why did Péloquin want to be there?
There was a side of the festival where they had entertainers from the States and all over who came to perform for free, to support the Cree people. There was that section, and my section. At Paul Sauvé it was a mix of Indigenous and non-Indigenous. At Places des Arts it was only Indigenous people who performed, which is the one you see in the film.
So this album is coming out officially 30 years later. In the past five years, likely longer, there are many high-profile younger Indigenous performers, and the Native North America compilation made a connection to another generation of performers, some of whom came out of retirement to perform and promote it. I can’t help but think the musical regeneration and the political regeneration of Idle No More go hand in hand. Do you think there’s anything to that?
I think that’s true. It’s the time. There is so much talent everywhere in the country. It’s a very rich scene. Even that time when I was performing a lot, I had my own stage at the Mariposa Folk Festival. I could invite who I wanted. For a lot of them, it was the first time they took a plane. We had so much fun, even beside the fact we were all performing. What people did to get there, what they went through, it was very special.
Was that one year or several years you booked that stage?
Through most of the ’70s?
Yes. I was singing there before, also. By the time I got my own stage and could invite my own people, it was the ’70s.
You were singing in the ’60s in Montreal, yes? Coffeehouses and such?
In Montreal, not really. I did in Toronto a lot. At folk festivals and sometimes at a place in Yorkville, not a bar, but a place people could eat and drink. I did a lot of festivals beside Mariposa, all over Canada.
You played New York City in 1960. The program was called Canadiana?
It was done by Folkways. It was at the Town Hall. I nearly died from being scared! (laughs) My mother was in the audience, and she practically fainted because of how nervous I was. I was learning English then—not that I speak very well English now, I’m still learning—the artists were all reading the newspaper, and someone said, ‘Alanis, did you read the review?’ I didn’t know what ‘review’ meant. I was too embarrassed to say I didn’t know. Apparently it was a great review, but I had no clue.
Who else was on the bill, do you remember?
Ti-Jean Carignan was, who was a very famous fiddler here in Quebec. Alan Mills. I have the pamphlet at home. I think there were seven people. Some very well-known, wonderful entertainers.
You started out singing in schools?
Oh yes. My main reason for singing was schools, to educate. I was so disgusted with the educational system and the books written about our people. They were designed to create hate for our people. There is no other way to explain it. I was a very young girl. I figured the children have to hear another story. I know my history, I can sing, I know games: this is how I started.
Were you writing your own songs?
Not at first, but it didn’t take long before I started. Especially with all these women disappearing, it was terrible. This is why I wrote “Bush Lady” then, in the early ’60s.
There’s a nod to the Sixties Scoop in that song, with the baby being taken away.
Everybody was challenging the Indian Act at that time. If you had a child outside your tribe, it was a big thing.
My French is not great. What is “Theo” about?
It’s about the history of a massacre that occurred in Odanak, the reserve I come from. It was in 1759. That was when the Battle of the Plains of Abraham occurred. The English won that battle. But people don’t know that same year, a few months later, there was a massacre on my reserve. They killed a lot of people and burned a whole village except for three houses where corn was preserved for the winter.
Was this the English or the French?
The English, the Americans. There were wars for 300 years for our people, Wabanaki. Originally New England was our land, and the Maritimes and the southern part of Quebec. There were many groups who belonged to the Wabanaki people, but with different names, like the Mi’kmaq. Many across the land. The English took our land and our people kept going back and fighting and lost the land. That song is about the massacre in October 1759, which very few people know about. I wanted people to learn that it wasn’t just the Plains of Abraham, that Odanak suffered a terrible genocide.
Recently I was researching the representation of residential schools in popular culture, and the only film I could find before Where the Spirit Lives in 1989 was Cold Journey, in 1975, for which I understand you played a role in getting it released. Is that correct?
They wanted to shelve it. The people in charge here [at the NFB] didn’t like that film. I didn’t want them to do that. A lot of our kids were performing or helping with making the film.
Was it the first with an all-Indigenous cast?
I think so. They showed it to me and wanted me to approve them shelving the film. I said, no, you can’t do that. Even myself when I did a series of six short films for education, first time shot on video, I had gone to shoot a film in Old Crow in Yukon. My producer said, ‘Alanis, will you do six? Let’s do a video of you and we’ll make a film about Old Crow later.’ I agreed to this, and I shouldn’t have, because the film was never made, there was a video made of it. I asked the director of Cold Journey if I could make a half hour with some of the material, and he gave me permission. This was also to make it known that there was a film and that the story was important.
Am I correct in thinking that there were very few stories in the public sphere about residential schools?
It’s true, there was nothing. When I was singing a lot, we did tours across the country and played in a lot of residential schools. One tour was professionally organized, and there were 11 of us on this bus. There was a family from Poor Man’s Reserve in Saskatchewan, the Rey family, an old couple plus one of their daughters and her husband and her two children, and two younger children who were 12 and 14, and Dottie Francis who was a storyteller, and there was me. The person who set up the tour overbooked us: we did 64 concerts in one month.
I’m sorry, what? Did you say 64 concerts in a month?
Yes, in this bus, going school to school in the Prairies. Sometimes two shows a day, plus travelling time. It was exhausting, but we did it. That’s quite a history, that tour.
What year was that tour?
I’d have to look that up. I’m terrible with time. I’d say late ’60s, early ’70s. One time I received an honour from the Ontario College of Art, a long time ago. The president of that time was Timothy Porteous. There was an Indigenous professor of art there, Robert Houle. Wonderful artist. Timothy asked him, ‘Do you know Alanis?’ He said, ‘Oh, yes.’ They asked him to write something to introduce me. I was shocked, because I’d known him before but he never told me this: he wrote, ‘I was in a residential school and when I was a young boy, Alanis came to sing there. My sister and me were so impressed and we loved her. When my sister got married and had her first child, she named her Alanis.’ I was so touched. Can you imagine? It was so long ago, and I didn’t even know that I went to his school and that I left that feeling. It was so moving.
Well, it does sound like you went to almost every school there, so it’s not that surprising you would have been at his school.
You know, for me, that’s the most dear thing to me, the decision to have done all those schools. In the ’60s I was told in the prisons that 68% of the prisoners were Indigenous. I thought, ‘Oh my God, my relatives are in jail! I should go visit them.’ I played a lot of prisons in Canada. In a lot of them, I was the first person to go in there as entertainment. I could write a book just on that.
One of the prisons I did, a maximum security prison in Quebec, it was the first time someone had come there to do a show, or whatever you want to call it. I was supposed to perform from 2 p.m. to 4. I got there: nobody. One of the guards said, ‘You know, you might not have anybody, because the population is telling each other, “Oh, you’re a faggot if you go to this.”’ I said, ‘That’s okay, I can be until 4, and if no one comes I’ll just leave.” 2: nobody. 2:30: nobody. About 20 minutes to three, 500 men come in. It was like in a gymnasium, with a cement floor. The sound of the chairs on the cement was awful. The person setting it up had put a long table at the front, with a microphone on a post on one side, and a chair on the other side. It was ridiculous.
So I put a chair on the table, got another chair and stood upon that to get on top of the other chair. Not only that, I was so scared of looking sexy, so I put on a nun’s apron. It’s like a dress but it’s cotton. I sat there with my drum. There were two guys in the front row, laughing at me. It reminded me of going to church with my mother and I’d laugh at the priests and my mother would get so angry at me. So these guys are laughing like that, because I must have been quite a sight. I’m singing and watching them laughing, I’m having a hard time concentrating.
After one song I said, ‘It’s not easy sitting here. I might look funny, but these two guys are sitting here laughing at me. If they do it again, I’ll have them take my place up here. We’ll see how funny it is.’ I start singing again, and they were laughing but not as much. I ended up teaching the prisoners some words in my language so they can sing with me. Then it turns out to be so wonderful: the prisoners were tapping their feet, singing with me. Then it was time for them to go back to their cells. I got off my stage, and not one prisoner left there without shaking my hand or kissing me on the cheek and thanking me. It turned out great. Even the two laughing guys thanked me. I wanted people to feel good about themselves and to know that our history is not told the way the truth was. I wanted to create some other things in the minds of these people other than what they were hearing.
I had asked [Native North America curator] Kevin Howes why there were no women on that album; he said it was an extremely male-dominated scene, other than yourself and Buffy Sainte-Marie. Did you interact much with Buffy in Yorkville?
I knew Buffy. She came to Montreal a few times and I took care of her while she was here. I loved Buffy. She is it. She’s still singing, too, and it’s wonderful what she’s done.
Were there other women on the scene that we should know about?
There were women doing traditional singing from their own community.
People writing songs?
I’d have to think. There were a lot of guys. Not as many women. All those guys: Tom Jackson, a lot of them. Inuit people, too, were a part of it. It was great. If you watch Amisk, you’ll get an idea of that.
Are there people you’ve been inspired by in recent years, musically, that you’ve been taken with?
There are lots of them. I’m terrible with names. I could think of it and then write it down for you.
You’re full of other people’s stories, but I’m really enjoying hearing your own stories. Have you ever considered turning the camera on yourself or writing a book?
There is a lot of pressure on me to write a book, which I will, if I don’t drop dead before. Starting in September, I’m getting organized to start doing that. Every month someone wants to make a film about me or write about me. I want to write my life myself. It will happen.