Manitoulin musical community celebrates Robbie Shawana

Great Northern Opry inductee Robbie Shawanda of Wikwemikong performs at the celebration event for his induction held on Sunday at the Tehkummah Triangle Seniors’ Club Hall. photo by Michael Erskine

TEHKUMMAH—The gallery of inductees into The Great Northern Opry is a literal Who’s Who of the people who have brought music into the hearts, homes and dance halls of Northern Ontario over the years. This past Sunday, local inductees and members of the Northern Ontario Country Music Hall of Fame gathered in Tehkummah to congratulate and help celebrate the upcoming induction of Wikwemikong’s Robbie Shawana as member 107 of The Great Northern Opry.

With the calibre of musicians backing him up as he took centre stage, a musician might feel overawed, but Mr. Shawana’s strong confident voice filled the Tehkummah Triangle Seniors’ Club hall as he played his way through familiar old standards, and a couple of newer offerings.

Preceding Mr. Shawana onstage were many of the current inductees in The Great Northern Opry, including the incomparable Eugene Manitowabi. Sadly, ill health prevented that venerable mishomis of the Wikwemikong music scene, Hardy Peltier, from appearing, although his best wishes were extended.

“G54,” bellowed Mr. Manitowabi before he settled into his songs. “Sorry, I thought I was coming to call bingo,” he joked. It is the gentle jocular style of entertainers like Mr. Manitowabi and Mr. Peltier in whose footsteps Mr. Shawana is confidently treading.

Mr. Shawana related his experience on the evening when he learned he was to be inducted into The Great Northern Opry. “I was invited to dinner at Green Acres,” he recalled. “They told me some of the people who were going to be there and I thought it was just a regular dinner thing they did every year. I said ‘thanks for inviting me this year’.”

Informed that the committee had selected him for induction, Mr. Shawana’s reaction was typical of inductees, noted Mr. McDougall. “He thought he was just there to play music with us. He asked us ‘why me?’,” he said. “When we told him, his jaw bounced off the table about three times.”

“I was tongue-tied,” admitted Mr. Shawana. “I just kept saying ‘oh, wow’.”

Mr. Shawana, like other inductees in The Great Northern Opry, has been playing in front of audiences for many years and providing not just music, but a full entertainment package that engages the audience and pulls them into the story being relayed in song.

“This isn’t me, it isn’t on my shoulders,” cautions Mr. McDougall. “Every member of the Opry has a say in who is going to be selected next.”

The criteria aren’t based on fame, fortune or commercial success, quite the contrary. “The people that are selected are not doing this professionally,” pointed out Mr. McDougall. “They all have other lives. There’s the other 22 hours before you get on stage that have to be taken care of, family obligations and such. These are people who play for the love of playing.”

Mr. Shawana epitomizes that kind of person, said Mr. McDougall. “He does so much for local organizations, the Special Olympics, his church, he does so much for free that people don’t realize.”

In fact, Mr. Shawana had played for two church functions in his community on Sunday morning before coming out to join his fellow inductees to play at the Tehkummah Hall.

“I first started out singing in the school choir at Pontiac,” he said. “It wasn’t until later in my 20s that I took up the guitar. I was out firefighting and I came home one time and found a guitar on my bed.”

While living in Sudbury, Mr. Shawana became enamoured of the karaoke scene. “I was karaoke crazy,” he laughed. “I must have been out every week, sometimes twice a week, wherever it was going on.”

But when it came to stepping out on stage, Mr. Shawana took several pages out of the books of his Wikwemikong precursors, folks like Mr. Manitowabi and Mr. Peltier. “It’s like those guys and the folks from Down Yonder, Glen, Doug and Jeff, they all have a presence on stage,” he said. “It’s not that you just get up and play your music and sing your songs, you bring the audience along with you.”

The musicians stayed onstage for two solid hours during the celebration for Mr. Shawana, taking a short 15-minute pause before starting up again until 10 pm.

“Well people wanted to dance,” chuckled Mr. Shawana. That was certainly true, as the dance floor at the hall was filled with whirling bodies as folks stepped out to their favourite tunes.

The Northern Ontario Country Music Association (NOCMA) is based in Sault Ste. Marie and operates The Great Northern Opry, The Northern Ontario Country Music Hall of Fame, NOCMA Records Label and organizes the Annual Northern Ontario Country Music Awards Weekend.

Each year the NOCMA inducts Northern Ontario Country Music Talent into The Great Northern Opry and The Northern Ontario Country Music Hall of Fame. The ceremonies are held at the Annual Northern Ontario Country Music Awards Weekend, held during the first weekend in November every year. Inductees are determined not by their commercial success, but rather the NOCMA has a qualifying system and the choices are made by the district reps. This puts a huge pressure on the association’s reps as they have to seek out district talent worthy of being inducted and organize a celebration show and dance event for each of these inductees. Members of the public can also recommend musicians to the reps for consideration for induction into either the Great Northern Opry or the Northern Ontario Country Music Hall of Fame. 

Each November, a busload of musicians and fans heads off to the Annual Northern Ontario Country Music Awards Weekend in Sault Ste. Marie. Spaces book up fast, so contacting Glenn McDougall at 705-377-4643 is highly advised for those wanting to join one of the Island’s premier musical outings this year.