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Arts & Culture ᐊᔨᐦᑐᐧᐃᓐ

Big Rock Music Festival rocks Mistissini 

BY Patrick Quinn Feb 26, 2024

Mistissini was rocking as the inaugural Big Rock Music Festival brought to town some of the biggest names in Cree and Innu music. The event featured over 50 performances at the Mistissini Sports Complex January 18-20.

“We’ve hardly had any concerts of this type and we have a lot of talent in the Cree Nation,” said organizer Rachel Neeposh. “It was good to see people who sang a long time ago get back up again and good to see the youth who are just starting get inspired with music.”

Neeposh first floated the idea of a festival back in the summer of 2021, with a committee formed from those enthusiastic about her Facebook post. After a successful talent show last winter, the committee planned a full festival this year with popular acts such as Fort George Rockers, Cree Rising and Into Overdrive.

Besides support from the community and several other sponsors, the festival was endorsed by Innu Chief Mike McKenzie. With Innu groups like Maten, Innutin, Scott Pien Picard and Ninan taking the stage, organizer Baby-Jane Kistabish Nadon said they’re an inspiration by proudly singing in their own language.

“[McKenzie] has come to Mistissini with different groups that also supported our goal and encouraged our people to remain who we are,” said Kistabish Nadon. “They’re reminding us it goes beyond the music. To speak your own language and remember where you come from and who you are. We are a strong nation – if they can do it, so can we.”

Kistabish Nadon asked the performers to share positive messages with the Cree Nation while showcasing their talent. She said Francine Weistche was one of her festival favourites. The event drew large crowds beginning each afternoon, with the venue filling up by the evening as guests poured in from the hockey tournament next door.

Paul Napash was on stage all three nights, both as a solo performer and part of the house band, playing keyboard with Cree Rising. It was a big weekend for him, releasing a new album Bring It All Together as PaulStar and beginning a residency at Voyageur Memorial School teaching the next generation of musicians in the Mikw Chiyâm program.

“It was exhausting and fun at the same time,” Napash told the Nation. “That’s what makes me happy, being on stage helping other musicians. Maten recognized me – we were part of National Indigenous Day in Quebec City as the backup band for Serge Fiori. We did a Tragically Hip song in 11 Indigenous languages. It was really inspiring and powerful.”

Napash played in bands as a teenager in Chisasibi and Waskaganish before starting to move into music production and beat-making when he left for schooling in Ottawa. As he produced bands like Violent Ground and developed his label Meikin Records, Napash has witnessed the Cree music scene’s growing prominence alongside the inPath Mikw Chiyâm and N’we Jinan community programs. 

“After working with Mikw Chiyâm, I purchased more stuff to make my record sound like a professional recording,” said Napash. “When N’we Jinan was introduced to the Cree Nation, I started to see more youth use that platform to express their capabilities as artists. [It] recently placed my piano composition on APTN’s series Warrior Up.” 

Among the diverse artists performing at Big Rock, KONG’s hip-hop on Saturday night made a particular impact with the youth in attendance. Following KONG gigs last year opening for high-profile acts like Tony Yayo and Halluci Nation, Steve Einish’s growing confidence as a performer earned him a gratifying post-show response.

“When I came off the stage, I was kind of emotional getting ready to head out,” Einish recalled. “All of a sudden, a bunch of people came to me asking for my autograph, then I was taking pictures with teenagers. It was all new to me, but I felt happy I’m making an impact, doing this thing I love and spreading a positive message.”

Before finishing with his new single “In da Rez”, Einish’s set culminated with a moving speech reflecting on his troubled younger days when he was sent to Mistissini’s group home for youth protection. In a full circle moment, two case workers from that time told him afterwards how proud they were to see his success. 

“I said, ‘They used to keep me here where all the bad kids go, right across the road,’” shared Einish. “‘You might be going through something bad growing up in reserves. You can come from any circumstance, but you have the power to change.’”

While his music openly discusses mental illness and “real situations on reserve right now,” Einish’s closing message was that music is healing. Expressing a “big shout-out” to the Big Rock committee, Einish is already in talks to appear at next year’s festival. 

“We had conversations that we want to make it an annual event,” revealed Kistabish Nadon. “I’d like to hear more singing in Cree to keep the language going for generations to come. We’re looking forward to seeing the youth rise up and sing.”

Tyana-Danis Shecapio, Kistabish Nadon’s teenage daughter, did just that when invited onstage to sing with Ninan after witnessing the event’s entire planning process. With the festival’s posters made by high school student Liam Swallow and several youths among the performers, the event is set to become an important stepping stone for aspiring Cree musicians.

Some names suggested for future festivals include country singer Chelsie Young and Innu folk legend Florent Vollant. This year’s Big Rock finale featured “Tshinanu” by Vollant’s former band Kashtin, bringing together the day’s Cree and Innu performers and Rachel Neeposh, a talented singer herself whose dream brought the festival into reality.

“Music is a way of expressing how you feel, helping you mentally for what you go through in life,” asserted Neeposh. “We believed it was going to be a success. I like to see people have fun and dance – that’s what I’d like to see at future festivals in the Cree Nation.”

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.