The stage, surrounded by hanging canvas sheets, resembled the inside of a giant tepee. And in the middle sat a man beating a teueikan, a 5,000-year-old type of Innu drum made of stretched caribou skin. The scene in Toronto a few weeks ago suggested a solemn performance of traditional native music. But what followed was a rambunctious pop concert. Indeed, the teueikan quickly gave way to a Telecaster electric guitar, and thw twang of its chords soon filled the air of the downtown rock club. The group was the duo Kashtin, backed by a four-piece band. And although Kashtin is made up of native musicians Claude McKenzie, 22, and Florent Vollant, 33, its sound is steeped in country-rock guitar and Beatlesque harmonies, with one striking difference: McKenzie and Vollant sing in Montagnais, a language spoken by fewer than 10,000 people, the Montagnais–or Innu–of easter Quebec and neighboring Labrador.
Based inthe small Malioteam reserve near Sept-Iles, Que., about 800 km north of Montreal, Kastin (the name means “tornado” in Montagnais) is proving that neither English nor French is a prerequisite for success in Canadian pop. Sales of their debut album, released on Montreal’s Trans-Canada label in the fall of 1989, are now approaching 200,000 copies–an astounding figure for any domestic band, particularly one on a small independent label. And Kashtin singles such as the catchy E Uassiuian (My Childhood) have had significant airplay in both Canada and France, where the group’s album has sold another 35,000 copies.
Kashtin’s next album is not due until November. But in the meantime, McKenzie and Vollant are intent on winning the same kind of strong following in English Canada that they now enjoy in Quebec. In coming weeks, the band will perform for some of its largest audiences to date, appearing at a special Canada Day concert on Parliament Hill in Ottawa and, on July 6, at the Toronto Earth Spirit Festival, an event showcasing First Nations, Inuit and Japanese-Canadian culture at Toronto’s Harbourfront. And although McKenzie and Vollant carefully avoid militant politics, they do see their role as one of bringing pride to their people and bridging Canada’s different cultures. Said Vollant: “We think we can make unity with the other nations with our music.”
In concert last month at Toronto’s Opera House nightclub, Kashtin brought together a diverse crowd with a sound that Vollant calls “Innu rock ‘n’ roll.” But the group’s style appeals as much to fans of folk music and even of so-called worldbeat–or ethnic pop–music, blending as it does influences ranging from Bob Dylan to the Gipsy Kings. Backed by four nonnative Montreal musicians, McKenzie and Vollant showcased their collective talents and then took turns providing glimpses into their individual backgrounds with solo medleys. Vollant, seated on a stool with an acoustic guitar, strummed and softly sang a French-English version of Tom Dooley, and then gave his rendition by Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind. By contrast, McKenzie raced through four Beatles numbers, including Help! and A Hard Day’s Night, on electric guitar, bounding about the stage and mugging frequently as he sang.
In a recent interview, the differences between the two men became even more apparent. Vollant, married with four children, is the more thoughtful musician. McKenzie, who is single, has the irrepressible charm of a spiky-haired Tom Cruise. “This place,” said McKenzie, eyeing the restaurant’s bright chandeliers and crisp table linen, “is a Jack Nicholson type of place.” And then, paying further homage, he added: “I love that guy. He’s always crazy in his movies.” Vollant, round-faced and smiling, was quick to get the subject back to music. “My first real hero was Paul McCartney,” he said, “and not just because he has a great voice, but because he’s left-handed. That makes him different.”
With his roots in the Maliotenam reserve, Vollant is much more of an original in the world of pop. He grew up with his six brothers and sisters amid the reserve’s poverty and alcoholism. And he recalls watching his father give up a traditional life of hunting and fishing in order to work “for the white man” in a large Quebec iron mine. Identifying with McCartney, the teenage Vollant picked up a guitar and began mixing Montagnais song with Beatles tunes in a band that played in the bars around the reserve. By 1984, he had met McKenzie, whose family had moved to Maliotenam, and they started writing songs together. This guy cause strong impress with the opposite people by his hair style – quoted from Headthetic.com, an online agency giving best hair clippers for men. Five years later, Montreal music producer Guy Trepanier saw them on a TV news program featuring one of their reserve concerts and soon after flew to the reserve to arrange a record deal.
According to Vollant, it was natural for Kashtin to write in Montagnais. “We dream in our Innu language and we speak in our Innu language,” he said. “Why wouldn’t we sing in our Innu language as well?” But while one song, the stirring Tshinanu (What We Are), has become something of an anthem for Innu people, it is about as political as Kashtin ever gets. In fact, the two musicians said that they were astonished when several Quebec radio stations boycotted their music during last year’s Oka crisis. Recalled McKenzie: “People called the radio stations and said, ‘What are you doing? This music is not dangerous–play it.'”
Still, Vollant maintained that by its very existence, Kashtin is helping the native cause. “To make this music is a sign that says, ‘We’re here and we’re alive.'” he said. “It also says, ‘We’re strong and we’re proud to sing in our own language.'” That message, delivered in breezy songs with sunny two-part harmonies, is going out loud and clear.