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Arts & Culture ᐊᔨᐦᑐᐧᐃᓐ

Workshop in Chisasibi encourages kids to explore songwriting

BY Julie McIntosh Apr 10, 2020

The lively sounds of high-pitched fiddling, tinkling piano keys and twanging guitar strings filled the hallways of Chisasibi’s James Bay Eeyou School with reimagined tunes and original songs performed by the very same people who walk these halls.

For four days and three nights (March 11-14), a group of Secondary 2 and 3 students reinterpreted and composed melodies with the help of acclaimed Canadian singer-songwriter Craig Cardiff.

In between performances and recordings, Cardiff leads music workshops in schools across Canada, guiding students to writing songs about what’s important to them and their community. In Chisasibi, some of the students were more musically inclined, others leaned towards writing lyrics, but all were hungry to create a song that comes from personal experience.  

“One activity was re-writing a favourite song,” said Cardiff. “One student liked Lady Gaga’s Shallow and re-wrote it. He played with the idea of ‘deep’, what the song makes us think about, and got other students to contribute as well,” said Cardiff.

Somewhat surprised, Principal Eric Grimstead noted how students steadily acclimatized to the visitor with a calm demeanour and rich singing voice as he taught them about his own experience overcoming barriers in songwriting and performance. Of the 12 participants, some were shy, others showed their musical prowess on the piano and loop pedals. By the end of the three days, the students and Cardiff felt confident enough to sing together.

“They felt safe, and comfortable,” reflected Grimstead. “Craig set it up so that it was an environment where they were totally supported, and never put on the spot.”

The students who were less interested in writing and composing were able to use the pedal bag that Cardiff brought with him. This instrument includes a mixing board, a looping pedal and a controller. Cardiff recalls one of the quieter students mixing the fiddle with the looping pedal to create unique sounds.

“I want them to see that what we started and what we were able to finish in a short period of time is achievable by them,” he said.

Cardiff’s workshop grew with little fanfare. From Wednesday to Saturday the murmurs created in the classroom circulated throughout the Chisasibi community. Cardiff’s thoughtful and creative teaching grew into a wave that rippled over students’ defensive barriers. Few showed up at the beginning of the workshop, but more students began peeking around the corner and eventually showed up to school on Saturday. Even the school maintenance officer stepped in to play a few tunes on the fiddle.

Most of Cardiff’s own memories of school are connected to music. He is passionate about music and it’s why he feels lucky to be able to balance these school workshops with his professional work.

Initially there was no plan to have JBES students perform at the Addictions Awareness Week concert on Friday, March 13. But an enthused Principal Grimstead worked his contacts and managed to convince organizers to squeeze them into the line-up.

With a newfound confidence and the determination to perform, students carefully wrapped up the school piano and moved it with nimble coordination to the concert hall.

“It was very sweet and inspiring, just how much pride they showed in moving the piano,” said Cardiff. Then he added, “Three of the students who took the workshops, we’re going to hear about them in the future.” 

There were about 100 people in the audience that evening, said Grimstead. Students performed original songs on the piano, guitar and vocals, while others were accompanied by Cardiff. He also played a few of his hits, including songs from his acclaimed album Cut to Ribbons. Not to be outdone, local fiddler Conrad Rupert joined Cardiff onstage.

On Saturday, Cardiff and the students discussed how to record the music they had created. Then he gave the school a parting gift – his looping pedal bag.

Cardiff is no stranger to performance. He is a Juno-nominated musician, with 12 albums in his repertoire, and a schedule that swings him back and forth across the globe. One could say his workshops are a comfortable antithesis of a fast-paced lifestyle, and a way to give back to the community of musicians.

“He was really focused on the kids,” noted Grimstead. “I admired that, because it was never about himself.”

Students will have to decide what to do with their pieces. There’s a buzz about them going up on Cardiff’s Spotify channel, but he was quick to point out that any revenue generated would go directly to JBES.

“That’s pretty cool,” said Grimstead. “We could use the money to buy more instruments.”

This comes after news that the New Paths for Education program – which funds Cree culture, language and student engagement programs such as this – is in danger to being shut down. 

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Julie is a Metis journalist who's Cree ancestry stems from the Fisher River Cree Nation in Manitoba. Her coverage of local, political, indigenous and environmental news has been printed in publications across the country. She is currently based in Montreal.