The Northern Arts and Cultural Centre will host its first live show in months as Thelma Cheechoo, a Cree folksinger and songwriter, is set to perform on Oct. 29.
Cheechoo’s live act follows Carmen Braden’s concert on Aug. 29, which was livestreamed on Facebook, but this next performance can be attended by up to 50 people, in line with public health restrictions surrounding Covid-19. It will also be recorded and streamed online the following evening.
There hasn’t been a full house at NACC since March 4 when a Chicago-based multi-disciplinary performance about Frankenstein made its Canadian debut.
Cheechoo, who comes from a large family of musicians in the Moose Factory and James Bay southern shore area of Canada, has been living in Yellowknife since 2015. Her genre is contemporary folk, and audience members can look forward to original songs and cover tunes, including one by NWT music legend Willie Thrasher.
“The thing is that for a lot of musicians it is a crazy time for us,” she said of her time as an artist during the pandemic. “It is a time of really trying to figure out and navigate a new way of doing things.”
Marie Coderre, executive and artistic director at NACC, said Cheechoo is “very low-key in town” but has been travelling all over the world for 25 years.
Since coming to Yellowknife, she has played live in the city about five times and has travelled throughout the NWT. She adds, however that she hasn’t actually been in the city much because of travelling and project commitments.
She performed at the Ko K’e Storytelling Festival in 2015 and opened for Jimmy Rankin when he first came to Yellowknife in 2017. Rankin also called her up on stage to sing during his last show in 2018.
She has also performed with Grammy-winning Iroquois artist Joanne Shenandoah.
These days are particularly exciting for Cheechoo as she plans to release her first album in six years in early 2021.
She had some success with her last album entitled “STAY” which she had produced at Stagg Street Studio in Los Angeles under Bill Bell, a producer who has done work for such artists as Tom Cochrane, Jimmy Rankin and Danko Jones.
The project was nominated for best country album at the Indigenous Music Awards in 2015 and she received airplay across the country.
“This time around I was supposed to go down to Toronto to record but because of Covid, we have been trying to figure out how to do it,” she said.
The album is in pre-production and she’s still trying to decide on whether to make the trip to Toronto and record in separate booths, or to record vocals separately while staying here in Yellowknife and then send them to be uploaded by the producer.
Her musical career takes her beyond recording and performing, she said. She always has a project underway and is – at least in normal times – travelling in either Northern Ontario or other places in the world.
In 2014, she was involved in creating and designing a youth music mentorship program that she uses to try to help Indigenous people maximize their musical career potential.
“I was often getting messages from young people and even older people in some of our small communities that ‘I want to get into the music industry and I don’t know what to’ or ‘How do I write a song,’ or other questions on how to become an engineer and do different things. So this started the idea on how can I work with communities.”
Internationally, she has drawn some attention for both advocacy and her history as a musician.
In 2018, she was invited to the International Youth Suicide Prevention Conference in Perth, Australia to share her youth mentorship program work with Indigenous people in that country. The next year, she was a guest lecturer at Aberdeen University for a British forum on the social and cultural contexts of music.
Tying it all together, Cheechoo said she sees music as being a healer of suffering and uncertainty, and a way to bring people together. The importance of this is only heightened during the pandemic, she adds.
“When Alicia Keyes was hosting the GRAMMYs, she said, ‘Music is one language we can all speak,’ and that it doesn’t matter where you come from, we all understand it. I think that is an important message with what is going on right now.”