WIIKWEMKOONG—This past weekend saw Wiikwemkoong’s largest music festival take place in the community since the last Three Fires Music Festival, which was held annually through the 1990s, and ending in 2000. The inaugural Wiikwemkoong Arts and Music Festival (WAMF) took place at Nimkii Bineshii Kaaning (Thunderbird Park) on Friday, August 31 and Saturday, September 2.

The festival, organized by Debajehmujig, aimed to highlight visual arts as well as music. The festival showcased a very impressive lineup of primarily local and/or Indigenous talent as well as artist-run workshops. With an emphasis on a celebration of women, the scheduled line-up of 15  musical acts included local and independent artists, most of which were women including headliners Crystal Shawanda and Tanya Tagaq.

The two-day festival was emceed by the very engaging and energetic Kerry Assiniwe who introduced each of the musical acts with a short bio and interesting facts about the performers.

The first performers to take the stage were Jordan Assiniwe and Friends, who Mr. Assiniwe describes as “just a random group who like to play some heavier tunes once in a while.” Jarrett Assiniwe sang vocals while Clint Fox was on drums, Matthew Assiniwe on bass and Jordan Assiniwe on guitar. Before ending their set, in a courageous and selfless move, Jarrett Assiniwe took the opportunity to use the stage as a platform to briefly mention that he has personally faced challenges with anxiety and depression and encouraged those in the audience who may be dealing with mental health issues to reach out for help.

Key festival organizer Jason Manitowabi and his band NS3, comprised off himself, Julius Wemigwans, Mitchell Manitowabi and Nimkee Wemigwans, were next to hit the stage. The band is a newer collective of seasoned musicians who describe their music as “a mixture of heavy and muscular guitar riffs with a reggae style back line.”

Brittany Manitowabi took the stage next. Ms. Manitowabi, who credits Shania Twain and Johnny Cash among her influences, has been singing as long as she’s been able to talk and has been performing for wider audiences since 2014. The former Miss Manitoulin (2015-2016) sang solo numbers as well as songs with her partner Josh Stevens who then took the stage with his band after Ms. Manitowabi’s set.

Mr. Stevens and his country band sang a number of original songs as well as covered a range of artists from Johnny Cash to Queen. Mr. Stevens’ selection of hit songs got the festival audience up dancing in no time at all.

Pat Peltier and his band took to the stage next singing both original and cover songs. In a moving gesture, Mr. Peltier and the band paid tribute to his late father Hardy-baa, playing a song with one of his guitars.

The ever-popular Elijah (Manitowabi) and the Back Burners closed out day one of the festival with an eclectic mix of jazz, rhythm and blues, classic country, rockabilly, rock and roll, and boogie piano sounds which had the park rocking late into the night.

The Ode’Min Kwe Singers, a collective of Anishinaabe kweok from around Manitoulin Island, which includes Danielle Roy, Tabitha Peltier, Gmewin Fox and Nina Trudeau, started day two of the festival with a hand drum performance. The group, known for being the first all-women hand drum group, performed a number of songs from past recordings and announced that they are working on releasing a new CD.

Local area musicians Ben Lentir and Friends entertained the Saturday afternoon audience with their classic country and bluegrass set.

Guelph folk duo Liv Cazzola and Braden Phelan, known as Tragedy Ann, continued the show with their “mood-setting, story-painting, goosebump-giving folk” while showcasing an array of musical instruments including the ukulele and accordion. Tragedy Ann is set to release their first full-length CD this autumn.

Brock Stonefish gained a number of new fans at the festival with his acoustic set of roots blues imbued with personal stories and messages of social justice.

The multi-talented singer, songwriter, musician, and world-renowned visual artist Leland Bell performed a number of original songs before being joined onstage with his good friend Mawla Shawana to sing a number of songs in Anishinaabemowin.

Next, The Johnnys took the afternoon stage by storm with their “three-minute sermons of jet-fuelled rock’n’roll, cheeky lyrics, and anthemic choruses” in a very high energy set with the occasional bits of choreography thrown in demonstrating how much fun the band is having on stage. Likewise, their fans in the audience carried that same high energy and excitement in the festival grounds dancing to each and every number.

Singer-songwriter Ansley Simpson, recent winner of the “Best New Artist” category at the 2018 Indigenous Music Awards, treated the late afternoon crowd to her dreamy folk style while showcasing her award-winning talent. Ms. Simpson is set to release her second album in winter 2019.

Crystal Shawanda, the first of the two festival headliners and hometown favourite, rocked the stage Saturday evening with her usual fun, high energy set encouraging the crowd to “come dance” with her, which they happily obliged her.

While Ms. Shawanda is still very busy touring in support of her most recent album Voodoo Woman, she still manages to take time to support new and emerging artists and was one of the biggest supporters of the Wiikwemkoong Arts and Music Festival from its inception lending support through mentorship, insider contacts, and of course as one of the headliners.

World-renowned throat singer, experimental vocalist, composer, visual artist, advocate, writer and public speaker, Tanya Tagaq, from Cambridge Bay (Iqaluktuutiaq), Nunavut, and the second of the festival’s two headliners, took the stage around 9:20 pm on Saturday night. After a brief introduction to her musical style, perhaps best characterized as an improvisational and contemporary take on traditional throat singing, Ms. Tagaq closed her eyes and seemingly went into her own world as she performed for a mesmerizing non-stop 40 minutes. Violinist Jesse Zubot and percussionist Jean Martin accompanied her. Fittingly, just before she went into her trance-like performance, she quipped “see you on the other side.” The festival crowd was tuned into her performance with what could only be described as amazement and gratitude for the opportunity to witness such an incredible performer, known and acclaimed world-wide, in such an intimate and personal setting.

Emcee Kerry Assiniwe, who had been posting about the festival on Facebook throughout the festival weekend, posted photos of the Inuk artist with the caption “OMG….I’ve got goosebumps…AMAZING powerful…improvisational throat singing. This Tanya Tagaq from Nunavat is another…wonder of the world! Wow!” Jason Manitowabi agreed, responding to the post that he was “thrilled and honoured to have Ms. Tagaq in our community!” and in particular thought that the pictures posted, which showed the stage background mural with a wolf, were especially fitting because “as part of her extraordinary performances, you can hear her mimic the exact sounds of the animals in her part of the world.” Ms. Tagaq’s wolf howl during her performance was indeed distinct and true.

Tagaq’s first book ‘Split Tooth,’ which according to a news release on her website “folds memoir with fiction, traditional stories with reality and poetry with prose,” is set for release this September 25.

Festival organizer Jason Manitowabi ended the evening with an expression of gratitude to all involved in the organizing and execution of the festival as well as those who came to watch the performers and support the festival.

Danielle Roy and her daughter, both of Ode’Min Kwe Singers, closed the festival with a travelling song and wished all well on their journeys back to their home communities

After the festival, Jason Manitowabi reflected back on the weekend and all the hard work that went into planning and organizing the festival and expressed that he was extremely pleased with how everything turned out, which he said could not have been possible without all the support received from partners, funders, mentors – Crystal Shawanda, in particular, the Debajehmujig staff, volunteers, security, the incredible line up of performers, artists, and of course, the folks who attended the event. Mr. Manitowabi was pleased with the audience turnout and believes that the audience numbers will only grow as the festival continues year over year and becomes wider known.

The festival was a remarkable opportunity to see many new and emerging artists, as well as bigger, better known acts, on a smaller stage right here in our own backyard on Manitoulin Island. The festival offered a wide array of musical talent and genres truly making it a festival for everyone. The many performers who graced the stage expressed their appreciation for being invited to be a part of the inaugural festival and hoped to be back for future renditions of the Wiikwemkoong Arts and Music Festival.

And so now it begins—work on the 2019 Wiikwemkoong Arts and Music Festival.