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Orchestral Powwow braids Indigenous beat with symphonic sounds

CBC News | May 29, 2023

Categories: news

Symphony New Brunswick, Chippewa Travellers perform Cris Derksen piece

Oscar Baker III · CBC News · Posted: May 29, 2023 4:00 AM EDT | Last Updated: May 29

An Indigenous women with hair ties hold a black cello
Orchestral Powwow by Cris Derksen, a Juno-nominated cellist and composer, is touring through New Brunswick. (Tanja-Tiziana Burdi)

A powwow drum will soon lead the Symphony New Brunswick, braiding together their sounds as part of Cris Derksen's vision of an Orchestral Powwow.

"I'm a strong supporter of us telling our own stories so this is the way for me to tell our story, to include actual Indigenous performers in classical music, " said Derksen, who is Cree from North Tallcree First Nation, about 500 kilometres north of Edmonton.

Derksen will tour Orchestral Powwow with Symphony New Brunswick in Moncton, Saint John and Fredericton this week.

At the centre of the show is powwow group Chippewa Travellers with six of their singers. Its drum will largely lead the symphony orchestra, instead of the conductor.

"The original idea behind it was it's just time for us to start listening to the heartbeat of the Indigenous folks," said Derksen.

Indigenous singers with symphonic musicians in the foreground
Chippewa Travellers perform Orchestral Powwow in 2017 in Calgary on Canada Day. (Chippewa Travellers/Facebook)

Derksen is a classically trained cellist and wanted a way to blend classical sounds with traditional music. In 2015 she created the album Orchestral Powwow, after receiving permission from each drum keeper from the powwow groups to use their work. Derksen received a Juno nomination for Instrumental Album for the project.

After the success of the album she developed the show and has brought it across the country.

"When I first did It was like a concept album so there were like six different drum groups and the Chippewa Travellers was the group that I worked with the most in the studio," said Derksen.

"They wrote some songs specifically for me to write around but I never really expected it to become a full show."

Derksen said after working with the Chippewa Travellers the past seven years they've become like family and she's proud through this project more Indigenous people are in classical music spaces.

"There's not many classical Indigenous performers out there at all but bringing the powwow into such a white space is really I think transformative," said Derksen.

Mélanie Léonard, the music director for Symphony New Brunswick, said Derksen is a talented and inspiring artist and Orchestral Powwow brings a new perspective and sound.

"It will be a very exciting, powerful and profound musical experience," said Léonard.

A lady in a black dress holds a conductor stick
Mélanie Léonard is the music director for Symphony New Brunswick. (Symphony New Brunswick )

She said she'll conduct some pieces but largely the symphony will follow the drum.

"It requires the musicians to really listen and rally around the drum and, you know, really work in synergy with the whole group," said Léonard.

"It's a different way of working and approaching music."

Orchestral Powwow tours in New Brunswick May 29-31.

Derksen is now working on a commission with Montreal's Orchestre Metropolitain with a world premiere in September. 

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