Crossing Over

Crossing Over the Invisible Line

My personal experience in joining traditional Indigenous and western musical forms

By Rohahes Iain Phillips

In recent times, as Indigenous musicians and composers make their mark on the musical world, Native forms are being used in more classical compositions with surprising results and in respectful ways. This newly opened field prompted me to explore composition as a way of combining the two most important influences in my life: classical Western music and First Peoples’ music.

I am an Indigenous classical musician of the Mohawk nation.

In First Peoples’ communities, music is one small part of a cultural whole.  Every song, dance or chant serves a vital and unique role within the culture. To try to separate musical forms from their cultural context often serves to diminish it. Each expression has its place within the cultural framework. Nothing exists for its own sake. First Peoples’ traditions regard everything as sacred. As a result, everything must be treated with respect. Perhaps it is telling that, so far, all of my major compositions have been sacred or liturgical works of one form or another.

When I received a call from the promoters of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) “Choral Concert” I realized I was being given an opportunity.  This was a chance to present a piece of crossover music that might help to further the understanding between First Peoples and those of settler heritages. “Choral Concert” is a well known CBC radio program, listened to by many people on Sunday mornings.  I was to participate in the 2003 Easter Sunrise event which would be broadcast live on radio and television.

After a great deal of personal prayer, thought and drumming, I finally arrived at a concept that I thought would work within the format and time limitations imposed by the CBC. I chose to tell  a story, in music, of the relationship between First Peoples and settlers, the Anglican Church and the residential schools. I decided to write a piece that would combine both Indigenous and Anglican faiths in what, I hoped, would be a meaningful and respectful manner.

The overall structure of the piece is framed by the two great musical traditions that have been major influences in my life — the Western style with its instrumental and choral traditions and the Iroquoian heritage  of oration, drumming and singing. The result was Ron wa son naiens: A Creation Hymn of Praise!

The piece is laid out in six sections each presenting a specific musical influence or period of history. It incorporates native flute, singer/chanter/speaker, two drummers and four- part choir of soprano, alto, tenor and bass voices.

The introduction is a pure Indigenous style. This represents the time before First Contact. The introductory section employs only drums, native flute and voice. The flute and voice exchange phrases.

Then another section combines both Western choral style and Indigenous chant where a quartette or small choir sings in Mohawk.  A chant separates the verses of the Anglican Doxology in Mohawk.

“Ron wa son naiens, ne Niio! Ron wa son naiens, ne non kwe, Ron wa son naiens, neh ne ken, Ron wa son naiens, ro ni ha.” Praise God, from whom all blessings flow, Praise him, all creatures here below, Praise him above, Ye heavenly hosts, Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost!

This represents the introduction of Christianity to the First Peoples.  Although representatives of the various Christian missionaries would see residents at regular Sunday services, oral accounts tell that Indigenous persons also continued their own practices.  This section’s arrangement represents the parallel operation of the two traditions. This duality of Indigenous and Christian belief systems (sometimes also referred to as the double-row wampum depicting parallel histories) was a common thing when I was growing up.  Importantly, the drums, which are considered the heartbeat of Mother Earth and part of the Indigenous side of the mix, do not play in the hymn sections.

The next section is in Anglican Church style using common harmonic chords. The overall gradual ascending and descending contours of the melody use the words of the hymn “All people, that on Earth do dwell”.  Indigenous customs and languages were forbidden and consequently almost forgotten. I chose to use a four- part setting of the hymn here to reflect that many of our people had put aside or forgotten the older traditional ways and completely embraced the new way of doing things.

The next section epitomizes Mohawk oratory skill:  the “Great Thanksgiving” prayer. This prayer is one of the foundation stones of Iroquoian culture. It is given at the start of any gathering at most Haudenosaunee assemblies and events. The “Great Thanksgiving” prayer lists the order of creation. The list reminds us of our place in that order and the duties and responsibilities we have to maintain a balance.  The giving of this prayer is spoken with the drums continuing softly in the background. The words are translated as follows.

Let us put our minds together and think of the reason for this gathering
Let us remember:
The People (men, women and children)
Our Mother the Earth
The Waters
The Life in the water (the fishes)
The Plant life
The Forests
The Animal life
The Three Sisters (Corn, Beans and Squash)
The Feathered Ones
The Four Directions or Winds
The Thunderers
Our Elder Brother the Sun
Our Grandmother the Moon
Our Brothers and Sisters the Stars
And finally the Creator

This section represents the revival of Indigenous traditions and the restoring of the languages in many communities.

The quartette/small choir section follows. This time a single drum is heard throughout the hymn to represent the first steps of the two cultures trying to understand each other. It further represents the recognition of the value of Indigenous ways and a broader acceptance of them.

This leads to a finale where both styles are combined in a great hymn of praise! In this section, I used the old choral technique of “faux bourdon” or setting the melody in the tenor line and having an expansive, soaring traditional style chant weave in and out of this final reiteration of the Anglican Doxology.  This final section represents the “reconciliation and apology” given by the Anglican Church and the hope that even more will come of the two traditions working together. I ended the piece as many powwow style songs and dances end, with five strong beats from the drums.

While I was preparing for the initial performance and live broadcast, several wonderful things happened. The first was the opportunity I had to teach the choir, which was made up of some of the very best choir members in the Ottawa region, to sing in Mohawk. It was quite the experience for me to hear a large choir made up of non-Indigenous people singing in Mohawk! The second was how well the drummers adapted to this experiment in cross-cultural music making. The drums must start and stop several times during the course of the piece. This was a novel experience for them since in most traditional forms the drums start at the beginning of a song or dance and continue without stopping until the end.

On April 20, 2003, in the Great Hall of the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, the world heard for the first time my attempt to bring the two great loves of my life together. I am pleased to say that the premiere was a great success. Later that same day I received a call from the Minister and elders of the United Church of Canada in Kahnawake, my home reserve, thanking me for how I had brought honour to both traditions. Some of the elders were especially pleased to have heard the large non-Indigenous choir actually sing in Mohawk!

Several subsequent performances have taken place. Two were given by the Choir of All Saints’ Anglican Church, Westboro, Ottawa, one for National Aboriginal Day, June 21, 2003 and again in November 2004 as part of a regular Sunday service. The Johannes Brahms Choir of Ottawa performed the work at their spring concert of 2004 and a further performance was given at the Central Canada Exhibition’s Interfaith Service on August 22, 2004.

The August 22, 2004 performance Luci Dufresne (drum), Rohahes (flute and chant), Michael McCord (drum) with members of The Brahms Choir of Ottawa and All Saints’ Anglican Church Choir (Westboro)

(this photo only shows half the choir)

In order to make the piece available to a wider number of choirs and performers, I have now provided several “alternate performance options.” It may be difficult to find a good Indigenous flute player. Consequently, I have suggested that the part can be played on either tenor recorder or modern Western flute. I recommended that recorder or modern flute players listen to some recordings of Indigenous flute to try and understand some of the grace notes and subtleties of the First Peoples’ style not directly reflected in the written score.  I have also suggested that the drum parts, which were originally performed by two First Nations’ drummers using frame drums, can also be performed by any two large drums as long as they are played in the traditional style using beaters.

©2019 This project was made possible with the support of the Department of Canadian Heritage through Canadian Culture Online
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