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Arts & Culture ᐊᔨᐦᑐᐧᐃᓐ

Aysanabee is enjoying success with his ever-evolving musical style

BY Joshua Janke Mar 16, 2024

Aysanabee is more than a name – it signifies a journey of self-discovery and the reclaiming of heritage for the Oji-Cree singer-songwriter. What began as conversations between a grandfather and grandson during the Covid pandemic transformed into an acclaimed debut album and the meteoric rise of a talented musician. 

Threads of identity are intricately woven into the tapestry of Aysanabe’s life, which moves from Sandy Lake First Nation to Thunder Bay and finally Toronto. They tell a tale that transcends personal narratives to symbolize the resilience of an entire community. 

The conversations with his grandfather, Watin Aysanabee, became a catalyst for Aysanabee’s own self-discovery, and reclamation of his identity. Shedding the name he had used since he was four, Evan Pang became Aysanabee once again – a symbolic affirmation of cultural heritage and a tribute to his grandfather and those who raised him. 

Aysanabee (meaning “the people”) has become a recognizable name in the Canadian music scene with the popularity of his debut album Watin and singles like “Nomads”, “Here and Now”, and “Come Out”. 

As the world grappled with the challenges of a pandemic, Aysanabee found himself immersed in a profoundly personal undertaking. His grandfather’s health was fading and memories vanishing while separated from his family in a Thunder Bay long-term care home. During this period of isolation that Aysanabee chose to reclaim his family name and the ties that bind him to Sandy Lake.

It began with a phone call to his grandfather and Watin’s guiding voice. “He was my last direct connection to our family’s story and our shared history,” Aysanabee says. “Like a lot of people, I always struggled to reconnect with my roots because I moved off the rez when I was only four.”

Aysanabee recorded his grandfather’s stories as they spoke on the phone. Over the span of hundreds of calls, Watin the album became a reality in 2022.  

Watin’s tale unfolded against the backdrop of McIntosh Residential School near Kenora, Ontario, where he was taken at the age of eight and renamed Walter. Before these phone calls with his grandfather began, Aysanabee admits, “I didn’t know all the things my grandfather, our family, and our community had been through.”

The stories, laden with pain and survival, also revealed a love story that would transcend life in residential school. “That was one of the main things that got him and my grandmother through their time at the residential school,” Aysanabee reflects. “They had each other, and they fell in love, despite the hard times.” 

Watin passed away in May 2023, but not before hearing his own voice on his grandson’s album. “It’s a privilege taking his name and holding it with such pride and contention,” Aysanabee says.  

From this intimate exploration of family history, Aysanabee swiftly ascended to the centre stage of Canadian music. His accolades, including a 2023 Juno Award nomination for Contemporary Indigenous Artist of the Year, three Indigenous Music Awards, a Jim Beam Indie Award, and a Folk Music Ontario Award for Recording Artist of the Year, underline his remarkable journey. in short order, Aysanabee went from unsigned artist to international celebrity. 

He is now basking in the glow of three 2024 Juno nominations for Songwriter of the Year, Contemporary Indigenous Artist or Group of the Year, and Alternative Album of the Year. 

His second release is Here and Now, a six-song EP which garnered him a Juno nomination. A review in Range magazine states: “Here and Now quenches the appetite as a sequel. Although the context of this record is different, the authenticity remains. Like a true artist, Aysanabee is always experimenting, growing, and putting his heart into the music.”

Departing from the acoustic foundations of Watin, Aysanabee embraces high-voltage production, transforming finger-picked acoustic melodies into towering soundscapes that propel his voice forward. The EP resonates with decisiveness – a sonic manifestation of letting go and acceptance. 

The video for his latest single, “Come Out”, is a stirring ode to lost love and features the mesmerizing vocals of acclaimed American singer-songwriter Raye Zaragoza. As the two voices beautifully intertwine with each other, you realize the song is a product of collaboration and compassion. 

“Often times, when you write a song with another person, it’s for one artist or the other. This one had a deep connection to us both, and I think it shows,” Aysanabee says.

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Joshua Janke lives in Montreal and is studying English Literature at Mcgill University. He is passionate about writing, social justice, and creating art.