LAKELAND – A music project that wasn’t really about the music turned out to be a smashing success, said artistic director Rosa John from Kehewin Native Dance Theatre (KNDT).
In early 2023, a collaborative project involving KNDT, an NGO Make Music Matter based out of Toronto, and the National Music Centre in Calgary, was one of 11 projects selected by the Bell Let’s Talk Diversity Fund.
The Naskwahamâtowin Project received $100,000 to reduce the stigma of mental illness while embracing culture and well-being for Indigenous teens through music, songwriting and singing.
The Project followed a framework created by Make Music Matter, which uses music and song writing to provide a unique form of group therapy for youth participants as they embrace their experiences, culture and stories.
A group of 18 youth from Cold Lake, Goodfish Lake, Onion Lake, Saddle Lake and Kehewin Cree Nation completed the program, coming together to form the Nikamo Collective. The word nikamo means “sing” in Cree.
The collective’s first single 'Moments' was released on Sept. 22 with the complete five-track EP dropping on Oct. 20.
‘Moments’ has elements of a modern pop song with a country flair that brings friendship and loneliness of youth to the forefront. “It talks about the things that are saving their lives,” said John.
The title track 'Moments' by Nikamo Collective has become anthem for the Indigenous youth from northeast Alberta who created the EP.
In addition to the title track ‘Moments,’ the EP includes ‘The Best Times’, ‘Wîhcêkaskosîwi-sâkahikanihk’ (Cree for Onion Lake First Nation), ‘She Brings Healing’ and ‘Mistatim’ (Cree for horse).
Naskwahamâtowin, the name of the project, which “means let's all share the music or singing together,” has truly given a voice to local Indigenous youth and created an artistic outlet for expression and healing.
However, the tracks were not really what the project was about, said John. “It's a great outcome but really the whole process was about bringing them to a point where they feel good about themselves, where they feel that they can share their thoughts.”
“When we first started the project, only one of the kids wanted to get up on the mic, but most of the kids were very, very shy,” recalled John. “It was funny because by the end they were scrapping to come to the mic.”
Most of the participants were between 10 and 14 years old and came with little to no musical background.
“The kids that we're working with were not really wanting to speak or wanting to share. So, when we first started in May it basically focused on just getting them to open up, getting them to write their thoughts, getting them to finally come to the mic. And that didn't happen until the end of May,” John said.
Nikamo Collective member, Akima Martial was introduced to the project through school. Her teacher asked Akima’s mother Gloria if it was OK for her to participate and with a thumbs up, Akima was regularly travelling from Cold Lake First Nation to join up with other Indigenous youth to write and sing.
The 14-year-old said taking part in the project has made her feel more confident.
“It was great. We had a fun time doing it and it got me out of my shell,” she said.
In agreeance, her mother added, “I've seen a big change in you.”
With the project wrapping up, Akima and the rest of the collective received the opportunity to perform at the National Music Centre on Oct. 28. “It was a fun, but at the same time terrifying,” said Akima.
Overall, the experience has left a desire for her to continue to pursue music. The young singer has even started writing her own songs.
From studio to stage
“A lot of the opening up happened the week that they spent with us at the studio. They were very serious about wanting to share their thoughts,” said John. “It was the atmosphere. We had the horses, we had the teepee, and we had lots of good food. I think that helped them develop that trust and develop that confidence that is still seen today.”
It took a lot of courage for the group to stand up and sing their thoughts in front of an audience, John acknowledged.
“They have really, really grown and that's what the project was about. The outcome was to have these bright beautiful happy kids at the end. And what happened in Calgary was just so beautiful.”
The performance at the National Music Centre was an unexpected bonus put together by KNDT’s partners, with Bell footing the bill for the youth’s travel, food and accommodations.
“When I told the kids, they were out of this world excited,” said John. The group then practiced and prepared for their first public 40-minute performance.
“The communities also came through, the schools came through, and they had ribbon skirts and ribbon shirts made for the concert. They were all feeling really proud.”
Reflecting on the last year, John said, “It was truly an amazing experience. Just the growth, the development and the trust. For them to trust us with their words, with their feelings, that was a huge endeavour on their part. We all grew so much through this project.”
Many of the students have expressed they want to continue with the project. Now John is looking at which direction to take the Naskwahamâtowin project next.
In May of 2024, KNDT intends to bring the group together to develop new songs.
This time, however, the project may also involve female elders, kokums and single moms from Kehewin with the purpose of creating lullabies, explained John.
The Nikamo Collective would then record these lullabies as a choir.
“There is a need for having their voices heard,” John said.
The story telling track 'She Brings Healing' is based on a story shared with the Nikamo Collective by Kehewin teacher Crystal Poitras-John.