Singer Rhonda Head has come a long and winding road to make her voice heard.
His classically trained voice gained worldwide recognition after receiving two bronze medals at the Global Music Awards, an online competition specializing in classical and jazz artists and composers.
Head, originally from the Cree Nation of Opaskwayak, near The Pas, was acclaimed for two songs in the Cree language, Kisahkihitin i love you, which was in the contemporary classic category, and 500 years, which received the honors among the songs of protest.
She began taking voice lessons in 1987, after graduating from high school at the University of Winnipeg Collegiate and moved to Toronto to study fashion. She found, almost by chance, that singing suited her better.
“When people ask me how I got into classical music, I usually say classical music found me, because I didn’t go looking for it,” Head says.
“Back then, the Toronto phone book was huge. I looked in the music section and there was an inch (of pages) of music teachers. I said, “Oh my God, how am I going to find a teacher? So I went up to half that thumb and closed my eyes and put my finger on a name and that’s the person I called.
“When I arrived, this handsome man who looked like Warren Beatty opened the door. I almost ran away, he was so handsome.”
She learned opera and learned to sing in lyrical languages such as Italian, Latin, German and English. Soon after, she realized that she had to sing in her native language, Cree, and when she did her first public performance, that was the language she chose.
“I didn’t start singing in front of a crowd until 2000 at an Opaskwayak Blizzard Cree Nation hockey game, and I sang the national anthem in Cree,” says Head. “It was really scary but I did it and got huge applause and that was it for me. I loved the music and I’m going to continue singing in public.”
Since then, she has been able to bridge the gap between Indigenous and European music, singing Cree-language interpretations of classical standards, such as Ave Maria, and using his classical training to reinvent Cree hymns and traditional songs.
“When I was studying the songs in Italian, French and Latin, I kind of put the brakes on,” she says. “I needed to start singing in my own language. I’m learning all these different languages but not mine.
“I started experimenting, putting the Cree language where the Italian was in an opera aria and found it to be a perfect fit … I often tell people that Cree is a language of love.
The Cree word kisahkihitin, from the title of Head’s first award winner, means “I love you” when translated into English.
She recorded her parts in Winnipeg and the Prague Orchestra, as part of a music recording program called Musiversal, laid down the strings and horns that Head was able to watch through the Zoom video conferencing app.
His second award-winning song, 500 years, also with the Prague Orchestra, deals with remembrance and empathy, and focuses on the history of residential schools in Canada and how it affected her family.
Her mother was taken from her family and sent to residential school; When she returned home, she couldn’t leave behind the memories of the abuse she suffered, Head says.
“They were just treated horribly. When they got home they were so traumatized. They started having their own families and children of their own and because of what happened to them at residential school, so it is. that we were treated, ”said Head, describing a condition called inter-generational trauma.
“I understood why she was the way she was then when she shared some of her experiences at residential school.
Traumatic memories like this struck every Canadian this summer after radar penetrating the ground uncovered hundreds of unmarked graves of children in old schools across the country.
“I think of all the children who never made it home and the families who were waiting for them,” she said.
Fall Fair Friday
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Indigenous performers highlight the three musical stages of the Friday Fall Fair, which runs from noon to midnight.
Country step: Jesse Bandura, Band of Brotherz, Gator Beaulieu, Martin Desjarlais, Lucien Spence, Brandi Vesna, Chokmah, Darren Lavalee, Catie St. Germain, Clint & Riley Dutiaume Band, Desiree Dorion and Jerry Sereda
Rock scene: Kristen McKay, the Resilience, Shades of Dawn, the Black Saddle Band, Joe Maxim, Loretta Johnston N the Mixxx, Crackin Foxy, Rescued by Dragonflyz and Billy Joe Green
Red barn step: Ivan Flett Memorial dancers with Ryan Richard and Felicia Morriseau; Inuit throat singer Zeann Manernaluk; Double the problem; Head of Rhonda; the Mosquitoz 2.0; Ojibway Elvis; Tracy Bone; Kimberley Dawn; Hawk eagle; Keewatin Breeze and the C-Weed Group
Head, who lives in The Pas, has been in Winnipeg for a week to perform in front of audiences again, including appearances at the Sakihiwe Festival and the opening of a new performance venue at Assiniboine Park.
On Friday, she performs at the Fall Fair, the postponed Red River Ex’s replacement carnival. His performance at the Red Barn Stage is part of an all-Indigenous lineup that includes Métis fiddlers Double the Trouble and rock bands Eagle and Hawk and the C-Weed Band.
She had to learn lessons about the music industry from scratch. Although her music is different from that of many other Indigenous artists, she became a mentor and worked with the Manitoba Arts Network, helping young Indigenous artists.
“I’m known as Aunt Rhonda in the music business because I freely share my knowledge in the music industry because of what I’ve been through,” she says. “It’s really gratifying for me to see them do well because when I was an emerging artist, no one was there for me. I did it all on my own.”
Alan Small has been a reporter for the Free Press for over 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being as a reporter in the Arts and Life section.
Read the full biography