Wiikwemkoong’s Urban Mejaki to be named to Great Northern Opry

Urban Mejaki

WIIKWEMKOONG—After two years of patiently waiting for his induction into the Great Northern Opry at the Northern Ontario Country Music Awards, Urban Mejaki will finally get his recognition this fall.

“I am very proud of being nominated for the award three times in a row,” quipped Mr. Mejaki (in reference to the honour having been delayed twice due to the pandemic) in talking to The Expositor.

Ben Lentir, a district representative on the Northern Ontario Country Music Association told The Expositor “one of the reasons Urban is being recognized is because of his many years of performing music on the Island and in the area. For exmaple, he has been in a band with Eugene Manitowabi and Hardy Peltier and is a very talented musician.”

From a young age, Mr. Mejaki, who was born and raised in Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory, was exposed to music. “I was very young when I first got interested in music. My grandparents and several of my uncles were right into music, in fact, one of my uncles, Steve Mejaki, was a fiddle champion,” he told The Expositor. “My mother was a music teacher but I never learned to read or write music, so I play music by ear.”

“Back in the day I could play the fiddle, banjo, mandolin and guitar,” said Mr. Mejaki. “I have provided the backup with several bands in the community over the years, such as Crystal Shawanda, Hardy Peltier and Eugene Manitowabi. I play bass guitar.”

“I was just 16 when I first played in the band that Hardy and Eugene had. I remember the first show I played with them was at a talent show in the community in 1967,” he said, also pointing out at the time he also had his own band.

“Now all of my old friends, except for Eugene, are passing away these days,” said Mr. Mejaki. “When I played with Eugene and Hardy I went anywhere they went, playing in Sagamok, Wiky, M’Chigeeng and I remember one time playing in the Espanola hotel. We played all over the place. When Eugene and Hardy had the band we called ourselves ‘The Odawas’ and we had Stanley Pangowish, he was our fiddle player, Ron Wakegijig and Paul Abel.”

“Now I play with Robbie Shawana, Doug Hore and Maurice Labelle,” said Mr. Mejaki. “We will be playing at the Bluegrass in the Country show in Providence Bay in June (9-12) playing on the Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning at the gospel music show. And I’ll be with them in Tehkummah on May 28 for the celebration show.”

“I remember one time years ago Eugene had problems with this voice and he couldn’t sing, so I asked if Robbie (Shawana) could help out,” said Mr. Mejaki. The band The Chiefs, including Robbie, Eugene, Henry Peltier, and myself with Sonny George on drums.”

When he was first approached several years ago about being nominated for induction into the Great North Opry Mr. Mejaki refused. “I lost my wife a few years ago in May, and Eugene and Ben showed up one day and asked me if I would accept the nomination. I refused because I told them I’m not a singer. But Eugene said my wife would love to see me inducted.”

Mr. Mejaki said his sons are also involved in music, and his youngest son “plays and likes his own style of country music. And my grandsons are just starting to learn music. My daughters have all the musical equipment but they don’t use it very much.”

“I used to play music three-four hours a night, just to keep in practice and keep up the beat,” said Mr. Mejaki. He pointed out a few years ago he started having major problems with his fingers because of arthritis, and with arthritis in his legs as well, “I can barely move around at times.”

“I live alone,” said Mr. Mejaki. “It was really hard after my wife passed away and no one could visit due to COVID.” He passes his time, “by listening to YouTube all day, Native bands that play Native music,” and he loves watching hockey and baseball on television.

“I’m going to need to pick up my guitar again and practice, with the show coming up in Tehkummah,” said Mr. Mejaki, who over the years has provided the backup music at wakes for those who have passed away. “Music is part of the healing process.”

Mr. Lentir said after having to postpone celebration parties for Mr. Mejaki the past two years due to COVID, a celebration party and show in honour of Mr. Mejaki will take place this Saturday, May 28 at 7 pm in the Tehkummah hall. Admission is $15 per person with all tickets purchased at the door.

“Entertainment for the evening will be provided by Opry members from Manitoulin Island who will be performing two songs each,” said Mr. Lentir. “We were working on this and had everything booked for a celebration show for Urban for September 12, 2020, but as we all know it had to be cancelled due to the pandemic.”

Mr. Mejaki’s actual induction into the Great North Opry will take place in Sault Ste. Marie on November 4-5.