Tomson Highway — Cree Country — KINOOSAO EEPEE — GASOOT (BURNT FISH)
With songs written in his mother tongue — Tomson Highway’s latest recording is a country music milestone with songs that swing, joke, drawl, and wail — all in Cree. This is what makes Cree Country unique. Sung by the incomparable Patricia Cano, this stylish collection of 12 new country songs from one of Canada’s most prolific artistic innovators — Tomson Highway features a spectacular band of Canada’s best country musicians. Cree Country is nothing short of compelling and joining us for the conversation is album composer Tomson Highway, vocalist Patricia Cano, producer John Alcorn and engineer Jeff Wolpert.
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Cree is an Indigenous language spoken by 100,000 North Americans. Many of Canada’s most well-known place names are of Cree origin, including Winnipeg, Manitoba, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Chicoutimi, Québec, and Ottawa. It’s a very rhythmic language that lends itself naturally to music-making — and particularly country! Tomson recalls living in the Manitoba bush in the 1950’s and hanging a transistor radio high in the trees at night to hear country music waft north all the way from Nashville, Tennessee. The joy of hearing that music is the inspiration behind these tunes.
“English is so hierarchical. In Cree, we don’t have animate-inanimate comparisons between things. Animals have souls that are equal to ours. Rocks have souls, trees have souls. Trees are ‘who,’ not ‘what.” — Tomson Highway.
Writer, composer and musician Tomson Highway was born in a snowbank on the Manitoba/Nunavut border to a family of nomadic caribou hunters. He had the great privilege of growing up in two languages: Cree, his mother tongue, and Dene, the language of the neighbouring nation, a people with whom his family travelled and hunted. He is the proud son of legendary caribou hunter and world championship dogsled racer, Joe Highway, and artist-in-her-own-right (as bead-worker and quilt-maker extraordinaire), Pelagie Highway. That’s them on the cover!
Tomson left home at the age of six, and travelled south 500 miles to attend school, learn English and to play the piano. His desire was to become a concert pianist. Now, the multi-talented Mr. Highway enjoys an international career as playwright, novelist, pianist, and songwriter. His critically acclaimed plays include The Rez Sisters, Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, Rose, Ernestine Shuswap Gets her Trout and the best-selling novel Kiss of the Fur Queen. For many years, Tomson ran Canada’s premiere Native theatre company Native Earth Performing Arts (based in Toronto), out of which emerged an entire generation of professional Indigenous playwrights, actors and many Native theatre companies in Canada.
Tomson Highway’s many awards include the Dora Mavor Moore Award for Best New Play and Best Production (three wins, five nominations), the Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama (two nominations), the Floyd S. Chalmers Canadian Play Award (two wins), the Toronto Arts Award (for outstanding contributions made over the years to the City of Toronto cultural industries), the Wang Harbourfront International Festival of Authors Award, the Silver Ticket Award (from the Dora Mavor Moore Awards, for outstanding contributions made over the years to the Toronto theatre industry), the National Aboriginal Achievement Award (2001), and the Order of Canada (1994).
Patricia Cano is an award-winning Peruvian-Canadian singer-songwriter and actor. In 2001, Tomson Highway invited Patricia to perform alongside him in a cabaret of his songs. This marked the beginning of an artistic collaboration that continues to this day. In 2014, Tomson Highway released his first studio recording, Patricia Cano Sings Songs from The (Post) Mistress, and in 2015, the album was nominated for a JUNO in the Indigenous Album of the Year category. In 2017, Patricia won the Toronto Theatre Critics Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her performance in Cree, English and French in Highway’s one-woman musical, The (Post) Mistress.
Produced by Max Horowitz — Crossover Media, This content, as well as the related podcast, are licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) for redistribution and adaptation.