Family, friends reunite at the Annual Crystal Shawanda Homecoming

Crystal Shawanda and husband Dewayne Strobel put on a show for the small crowd gathered for her 11th annual homecoming. photo by Warren Schlote

WIIKWEMKOONG—Internationally-acclaimed vocalist Crystal Shawanda’s annual homecoming party brought friends, family and fans together under the setting Wiikwemkoong sun to the sounds of blues and country hits last Friday.

The event, now in its 11th year, was a more intimate affair than past years which have drawn hundreds of people. One of the factors for the smaller size was the usual stage being in poor repair this year.

“And to be honest, I have a little 17-month-old baby now, and I just didn’t want to wear myself out worrying about it,” said Ms. Shawanda. Her daughter Zhaa Zhaa was at the show, excitedly running around to meet the many new faces around her.

The floor-level stage for this year’s event was set up facing the sun which, although slightly blinding when the clouds occasionally parted, offered a striking backdrop for the performance. Ms. Shawanda was joined on stage by her husband Dewayne Strobel, providing all of the musical accompaniment on his electric guitar. It was a special day for the musical duo—homecoming coincided with the couple’s 15th anniversary.

Ms. Shawanda created the original idea for the homecoming shows out of necessity.

“When we first started doing these events, it was because there was nowhere to play in the area,” said Ms. Shawanda. “Basically, the closest place I was playing was Toronto.”

Despite her relocation to Nashville, Ms. Shawanda has remained committed to her home in Wiikwemkoong as well as some places which have fostered her growth. Her international successes are what have enabled her to express that gratitude back home.

“Now I’m at a point where I do what I want to do. I visit the communities that have nurtured me through my childhood when I first started singing,” said Ms. Shawanda. Since she has started playing at more venues around the province, fans have not needed to visit her family’s home to see her perform. That factor also contributed to the diminishing size of the event.

This year’s smaller event also meant more time for Ms. Shawanda to interact with old friends, family and long-time fans, something that tends to be difficult at big shows. “It’s nice to invite the Island here so we can catch up. Having that support is nice.”

Derek and Celina Blakeney travelled from Sudbury for the show. Ms. Shawanda’s music has been a recurring presence in their lives—last year, she sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to Ms. Blakeney at the homecoming event. When the couple got married, Ms. Shawanda’s ‘You Can Let Go’ played as Ms. Blakeney walked down the aisle.

“We’d bring my parents every year,” said Ms. Blakeney. “Usually we come out as a family to homecoming because Crystal is my mom’s favourite artist.”

Ms. Blakeney’s father died three years ago, turning the annual homecoming trip into a sentimental tradition. Ms. Shawanda performed the emotional ‘You Can Let Go’ near the end of her first set, which brought Ms. Blakeney up to the front to dance with another audience member.

For Ms. Blakeney, the personal connection Ms. Shawanda brings to her performances—especially homecoming—has resonated the deepest.

“I like how she gets involved with all her fans; she treats them like family,” she said. “It’s like a gathering of friends celebrating music.”

A number of people in attendance were members of the Espanola Autism Acceptance group. That group has partnered with Ms. Shawanda on numerous occasions in the past and are major supporters of her work. Several of them were seated in the front row, and did not hesitate to get up and dance along to the performance.

About 75 people had gathered by the end of Ms. Shawanda’s first set. It was a mixture of original tunes and covers from both a blues and a country repertoire. The setlist was appropriate for Ms. Shawanda, who began her career as a country singer but has been moving more firmly towards blues in her latest few albums.

Ms. Shawanda’s most recent album ‘Voodoo Woman’ came out in late 2017. Even though she is still actively promoting that release, she is already back in the recording studio working on another blues album. While her most recent release contained a number of cover songs, the new project will feature more original tunes. Ms. Shawanda said she hopes to release that album in early 2019.