by Bruce Mason
The northern sky wheels around Polaris, the star humans have relied on to sail seas, cross deserts, escape slavery. And Leela Gilday’s remarkable fifth album, North Star Calling, also provides light for a journey. Very accessible and highly visible, it’s a cultural touchstone for our country’s overdue reconciliation and hoped-for transformation.
“Raising awareness is my life’s work,” the acclaimed singer-songwriter said shortly after returning home to Yellowknife from an international tour. “To open hearts and minds – which can be difficult and uncomfortable – is essential to creating and building new relationships.
“In places I’ve never been to before, such as Greenland or Australia, even Finland, Germany, or Quebec where English is scarce (never mind the language of my Dené people), what resonates down to our DNA is primal, a universal connection to land and water. Those messages from the album ring true with people the world over.”
On an increasingly divided and endangered planet, other global commonalities include escalating suicide, racism, and the stigma of mental illness. Along with this goes the need for spiritual awakening, a longing for lost vision, and a search for new values.
“It’s complicated. I’m able to share and celebrate, after moving through what’s kept me from living my life. It’s not Dené, or an indigenous people’s thing. It’s human, our birthright. Everything is better when you’re connected to the land. It’s absolutely true and has always been my compass,” she explains.
North Star Calling is a sonic journey to the Northwest Territories, with ravens overhead, drumming and dancing, a singing elder. But the album is no soundtrack for some fly-over travelogue. There are “hard truths”. And songs like “Hard Ground”. On the title track, she sings:
We were born broken, though borne of love,
Bearing the scars of a war we don’t speak of,
Fighting our way from cradle to grave
Searching for light through darkest days.
“It’s five years between records, a transformation in beautiful, difficult musical and personal experiences. We must stand in the pain, live with courage, boldness and joy. I examined my fears and faced them in the writing and in the studio,” she reports. “It is also, for the first time and in an honest way, about healing, true healing, not just the absence of pain, or addictions. This record is me letting go.”
North Star Calling is bookended by a wing and a prayer. “Rolling Thunder” imagines the sound of the global gathering of Earth and Water Protectors. The final song “Yake Gotin“, meaning “Star People” or holy people, is a hymn for wholeness to a Creator, a recognition of ourselves as a continuum and of ancestors who help us daily.
Full credit to producer/engineer/mixer Hill Kourkoutis, who subtly weaves together the drumming heartbeat of First Nations music, acclaimed throat-singing of Tanya Tagaq, eclectic guitars and other assorted strings, and a compelling duet with Logan Staats and a “Friends Choir”.
Gilday says: “She pushed me to be vulnerable, urging me to step up, without bells, whistles, vocal gymnastics, past my comfort zone, a super scary and amazing experience. Hill is lightning fast and extremely musical, also intuitive, seeking the heart and soul, and shaping the production to serve the artist and song. The sky is the limit for Kourkoutis.”
Also standing out in the star power are Gilday’s passionate and versatile vocals. Schooled in opera and with a master’s degree in voice, she is steeped in pre-teen performances and the soulful recordings of Aretha Franklin. The palate: her tradition and environment; the challenge: finding her authentic voice.
“Be the kindest, most gentle person you can be to yourself and to those around you. Remove yourself from situations you can’t handle (for whatever reason) – no need to make excuses. Reach out to your support networks if you need it! And just remember you are definitely not alone in this struggle. We are all out here trying,” she advises.
“We find ourselves at a critical time with climate change. Traditional values, stories, the world view of Indigenous peoples – and specifically Indigenous women – I think, are key to the future,” says Gilday.
Everyone from Sir Richard Attenborough to David Suzuki have identified Indigenous people as humanity’s last, best hope. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission outlines the shameful legacy and 94 recommendations to redress it. We are being urged to listen and to act. Leela Gilday’s North Star Calling is for those who want to do both. Her home page www.leelagilday.com.
Bruce Mason is a Vancouver and Gabriola-Island based five-string banjo player, gardener, freelance writer and author of Our Clinic.