WIKWEMIKONG—The spirit of renowned Wikwemikong musician Chi-Paul (the late Paul Abel) drifted through the air to mingle with the audience in the packed community hall where he so often performed for family, friends and fans. The memory of Chi-Paul came alive through the efforts of artists like Roger Daybutch and his band the Mason Dixon Line who played Mr. Abel’s favourite country tunes for the appreciative audience.
Mr. Abel, represented by members of his family, was being honoured through induction into the newly formed Aboriginal Country Music Association along with three longtime Wikwemikong musicians: Hardy Peltier, Eugene Manitowabi and Leland Bell.
The inductions into the Aboriginal Country Music Association are being conducted at a series of events taking place in communities across the length and breadth of Robinson Huron territory.
“We decided to do this the Anishinaabe way,” joked Mr. Daybutch. “All of the communities are competing to see where the first awards night will take place.”
The musician, who acted as master of ceremonies for the March 2 inductions in Wikwemikong, is the founder of the Aboriginal Country Music Association. “I had the seed of the idea planted a long time ago,” said Mr. Daybutch. “While I was travelling through southern Ontario and Michigan playing with bands and meeting other musicians I discovered that there is a lot of talent in our communities,” he said. “This is where we have the chance to acknowledge and recognize the country music artists who have entertained their communities through the years. It also gives us a chance to share some of the old music with the young people coming up.”
The object of the formation of the Aboriginal Country Music Association is manifold: to promote country music, to recognize the talents in Anishinabe communities and to introduce and showcase young up-and-coming talent.
One such talent, Taylor Armstrong of the Mississaugi First Nation, performed for the audience during the first part of the evening. “This shows you the dedication and hard work of these young artists,” said Mr. Daybutch. “Taylor and her mother travelled all the way from North Bay to sing a couple of songs for you tonight and then she told me she had to leave to go back home because she is working on a term paper that is due.”
Inductee Hardy Peltier took to the stage to perform several old community favourites, calling up the surviving members of his old band The Odawas, fellow inductee Eugene Manitowabi and Urban Mejaki to perform.
Mr. Peltier recalled the formation of the band and the origin of the group’s first name, The Wiky Wacky Wing Dings. “We were asked to open for Don Messer when his show played the arena in Little Current back in the ‘60s,” he said. Both Mr. Peltier and Mr. Manitowabi honoured their wives for putting up with them the many years they spent on the road.
Natural entertainers, the two bantered back and forth mixing inside jokes with earthy humour kept carefully within the bounds of a family-friendly event.
“We had an awful lot of fun,” said Mr. Peltier. “I am glad to be here tonight.”
“With my talent I am glad to be anywhere,” quipped Mr. Manitowabi.
They recalled the friends who have passed on, like fellow Odawa musician the late Chief Ronnie Wakegijig and fellow inductee Chi-Paul. “These guys were wicked teasers,” said Mr. Peltier. “Paul never did have any teeth, but he could knock down three or four pork chops.”
Mr. Peltier noted that the power of country music lies in the telling of stories that ordinary people can relate to in their everyday lives. “It’s the sharing of the stories, every song they sing, it tells a story,” he said. “We are not rock stars, but we have been there and got the T-shirts,” laughed Mr. Peltier.
Inductee Leland Bell, a renowned international artist, recalled his earliest days learning to play the guitar and singing lyrics, skills he learned largely through watching and imitating people like Chi-Paul.
“It is difficult to perform,” said Mr. Bell. “I wasn’t very good at the start, I just did backup vocals for a long time. My lyric list would be something like ‘rollin, rollin, rollin,’ that was it.”
“Music to me is my friend,” continued Mr. Bell. “While I am painting, doing my art, my guitar is there in the studio with me. I often pick it up when I lay down my brushes. Music has helped me in my ups and downs.”
“These guys brought me along,” said Mr. Manitowabi. “I am not a natural born musician, but they gave me a chance.” The success came not through outstanding musical talent but in the making of a connection with the people in the audience. “As long as people were happy and could relate, I did mostly cover songs, but they sent a message out there. You never know who is out there in the audience that has had a bad day—but the songs I sing say there is always another day, tomorrow is a better day and hold things together.”
Chi-Paul’s daughter Roxanne Recollet spoke about her memories of her father and his love of music, how he often travelled into the US to play, but especially how grateful she and her sister were to have grown up in a home filled with music. She recalled how, when her father opened for the iconic Canadian musician Don Messer, he was introduced as “the star. From that day on he would joke about being ‘the star’ in the band.”
Wikwemikong Chief Duke Peltier was lauded by Mr. Daybutch and the musicians being honoured at the Aboriginal Country Music Association for having arranged the evening in a very short time. “There was none of this ‘I have to talk to my council’ stuff,” said Mr. Daybutch. “He just said ‘we will make this happen.’”
Chief Peltier said that he would be approaching his council to create a plaque honouring the musicians of the community. A large plaque bearing the names of hundreds of musicians from the community was on display at the back of the hall.
“I hope we can get a room set up somewhere,” noted Mr. Peltier. “I have so many pictures and things from the old days that would be good for people to see.”
As the awards and speeches began to wind down, the musicians gave a shout out to two special fans. “It is Linda and Ronnie Bowerman’s (of Sheguiandah) 50th anniversary,” said Mr. Peltier. “They have been among our strongest fans down through the years.”
The evening then continued on with Roger Daybutch and the Mason Dixon Line pumping out the country tunes like the talented and experienced professionals they are.