nêhiyawak’s breakthrough album carries the spirit of the river
By Renato Pagnani | November 2, 2020
Idle No More emerged in late 2012 as a grassroots, Indigenous-led social movement founded by four Saskatchewan women to fight for Indigenous rights and the protection of land, water and sky
Numerous protests were held across Canada as well as other forms of activism, such as a flash mob round dance at West Edmonton Mall and several lectures from prominent Indigenous voices.
All of which left an indelible mark on Kris Harper.
After his cousin, Marek Tyler, moved back to Edmonton in 2016 after living in Victoria for a few years, he and Harper reconnected. They knew that each other made music, and Tyler asked Harper what he was up to musically.
Harper had an idea — one he had been thinking about since the Idle No More rallies.
“I felt like it was a great time to write music that tried to capture some of the vibrations I felt at those lectures,” he explains. “
I had written some songs over the years but had never recorded them. Marek and I got into the studio and, after our second rehearsal, we decided to bring in our friend Matthew Cardinal as a keyboard-bassist, and nêhiyawak was born.”
These recording sessions eventually produced twelve songs, an album nêhiyawak (pronounced neh-HEE-oh-wuk) would go on to title nipiy, which means “water” in Cree.
Accolades arrived swiftly.
Just three months after the album’s arrival last fall, the post-rock band that describes its sound as “moccasingaze” was nominated for Indigenous Artist or Group of the Year at the 2020 Juno Awards. It didn’t win — but fellow Edmontonian Celeigh Cardinal did, off the strength of her album, Stories from a Downtown Apartment.
A few months later, nipiy made the Polaris Music Prize’s long list, a collection of 40 Canadian albums that vie for the $50,000 awarded to the artist or band who creates the best Canadian album each year as judged by an independent jury of music journalists, broadcasters and bloggers from across Canada (full disclosure: I was a member of the Polaris Prize jury from 2011 to 2018). And, much to the band’s surprise, when the Polaris Prize announced its 10 finalists for the award in June, nipiy made the cut again.
Nêhiyawak operate at the musical junction between traditional Indigenous sounds and modern experimentation. Atmospheric guitars juxtapose with contemplative shoegaze tempos; jagged riffs ride waves of static until abrupt drops in altitude shift the ground beneath Harper’s vocals. Anchoring every-thing to the past is a pulse provided by traditional Indigenous drums played with devastating aplomb by Tyler.
Those drums, gifted from Kwakwaka’wakw and Coast Salish artist Carey Newman, include a six-by-three feet elk hide frame drum, a carved cedar log drum and a pow wow drum. Together, they place nêhiyawak’s music in a lineage that spans thousands of years, fusing the ancient with the modern.
Harper’s songwriting touches on subjects like the genocide of Indigenous peoples, the environmental and social impacts of resource extraction, and the horrors of residential schools.
Cree words can also be heard throughout nipiy, such as on the song “open window,” which features spoken-word poetry from Harper’s parents.
“While the song is kind of heavy, referencing the Sixties Scoop, where Indigenous children in the 1960s were stolen from their families and put into the welfare and residential school system without consent, its message is meant to be one of learning and acceptance,” explains Harper. “Being able to speak about something is an important step in the healing process.
“Part of the album’s mission is to bring awareness through some of this language. It’s not meant to keep people stuck in a place of hurt, but to inspire them to learn about what happened, and hopefully help people, including ourselves, to grow and let go of some of the historical pain we’ve been holding onto collectively as a community.”
One path toward healing, of course, is acknowledging the life-giving power — and crushing strength that demands awe and respect — of water.
Album bookends “kisiskâciwanisîpiy pêyak” and “kisiskâciwanisîpiy nîso” pay tribute to the North Saskatchewan River (they translate as “north saskatchewan one” and “north saskatchewan two,” respectively) which runs through the traditional territory of amiskwaciy, also known as Edmonton and, according to their calculations, flows at 90 beats per minute. Simultaneously beautiful and ominous, the instrumentals capture the violent rhythms and serene stillness of which water is capable.
“A respect and reverence for water is something we were taught as young children,” Harper says. “Without it, life doesn’t exist. When we were recording the album, it felt like the one theme that connected it all together. In retrospect, nipiy was the only title that could’ve worked.”
The album was recorded on Vancouver Island with producer Colin Stewart, who has worked with Canadian artists ranging from indie rockers the New Pornographers to the psychedelically oriented Black Mountain. But, while the unique energy of the west coast gave the band the kind of immersion in nature needed to capture the spirit of water, the album remains indebted to Edmonton.
“The entire time we were on the island recording the album, I kept thinking about the river valley and Edmonton’s energy,” says Harper. “I’m enamoured with this city in a way that I think comes through on this record. Without Edmonton, nipiy doesn’t exist.”