BY Liisa Ladouceur
October 29, 2008
The hotel operator asks me twice to spell the name of the guest I'm
looking for and I have half a mind to answer with a list of her
credentials instead: Oscar-winning songwriter; Officer of the Order
of Canada; Doctor of Fine Arts; UNESCO Spokesperson; and Sesame
Street songstress of choice decades before Feist. But being snarky is
definitely not what Buffy Sainte-Marie would do. For more than 40
years, the teacher, singer, painter and activist has been confronting
all kinds of injustice with a smile. Sixteen years after her last
studio record, Canada's most famous aboriginal artist (a dual US
citizen who lives in Hawaii on a "farm with mountain goats") returns
with her musically diverse Running for the Drum CD, a biographical
DVD and tour dates such as her upcoming Massey Hall date with Richie Havens.
Your new album is half love songs and half protest songs. So are you
a lover and a fighter?
I don't know much about being a fighter, but I'm a writer, that's for sure.
Well, you fight for ideas, don't you?
I'm willing to write, explore, share and build. I'm not someone who
is trying to debate things. I write songs like "Universal Soldier"
and "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" and "No No Keshagesh" very, very
carefully, because it's not about pulling other people down, it's
about raising everyone up. I have a great life and I travel so much
and I can see how beautiful the world is when people are getting
along. It's not a matter of fighting, it's about pointing things out
with a sense of humour. Like in my new song, "No No Keshagesh" it's
about environmental greed, but it's also a dance tune.
The record starts with the sounds of a crowd gathering and drums. Are
these two things important to you?
No, it's just the way my huge concerts sound. We did the Montreal
Jazz Festival this summer, we had a million people in Washington DC
for the 150th anniversary of the Smithsonian. So there's always a
crowd noise, a buzz. And, well, The Beatles put [crowd noise] on
their record. [laughs] As for the drums … it is a big part of that
song. But please, don't think I have Indian drums hanging off my ears
You've been using digital technology for music and art since the
'60s. How do you feel about how it has affected the music business?
I love it. My hero is Tim Berners-Lee, head of the team at MIT who
invented the internet. Tim could have owned that personally and he
decided not to because he believes that information wants to be free.
And I think so too. Like my Cradleboard Teaching Project [using
technology to teach kids about Native American culture] finally my
dream has come true and I've made that free. People have to have free
access without having to go through unnecessary gatekeepers that
applies to music, too.
Who are your other heroes?
I just watched Aretha Franklin on The View. What a gift from god she
is. I'm the kind of person who doesn't believe in singing lessons I
am a big fan of people who do things in a natural way. Barack Obama
really lit me up when I first saw him at the Democratic Convention
several years ago. Not just because he's a wonderful speaker but the
idea that a professor of constitutional law could be a world leader.
It's the most incredible opportunity.
What other new projects are you working on?
All last week I was out in New Mexico campaigning for Barack. His
sister came and spoke at an event where I was. I wrote a cheque but
there was an opportunity to volunteer and I wanted to work in Indian
country regarding voting protection. Because there were tens of
thousands of people who were not allowed to vote in the past two
elections. I was there to help people know their rights.
Canadian icon wears her many hats well
Memory Mcleod, The Leader-Post
Published: Monday, November 10, 2008
Singer, songwriter, activist, pioneering computer artist, educator,
visionary, banshee, a legend in her own time.
Metamorphosis has been the only constant in the life of Buffy
Sainte-Marie, the groundbreaking Cree Indian woman who was born on
the Piapot Reserve in 1941.
"If you want to reach tens of thousands of people, you have to figure
out how you're going to do that. You can write a song, write a
speech, write a blog, send out a mass e-mail -- there are so many
ways. You just have to pick one and run with it," Sainte-Marie said
in a telephone interview from her home in Kaua'i, Hawaii.
And that's just what she's done with Running for the Drum, a new
album released in October.
The new album is made up of 12 songs ranging in style from country to
folk to techno to jazz to rock with a healthy dose of powwow music
taken from samples of recordings taken at powwows by her nephew, a
traditional drum maker.
"The album contains many, many grassroots ties to Saskatchewan and if
you are from there and you listen, you will hear that," she explained.
One song, entitled Still This Love Goes On, was written about
Sainte-Marie's feelings of missing the sights and smells of her home
reserve and family on the Piapot First Nation.
"It's about missing Piapot and the ways of the sweetgrass. I remember
waking up to the smell of a woodstove and sweetgrass and hearing the
singing and hand drum. It's about missing those things," she said.
Sainte-Marie was adopted into the Piapot family when a search for her
birth family came up empty.
"Some people wouldn't understand the close bond of traditional
adoptions like mine. It's at least as close a bond as marriage. You
can't be divorced from it. The way I was embraced by Clara
Starblanket-Piapot and her sisters, brothers, nieces, nephews and
neighbours and friends has had a major impact on my life. They have
had a huge impact on my mind and my heart," she explained.
The album includes a copy of Buffy Sainte-Marie: A Multimedia Life, a
documentary which tracks her transformations. She has gone from being
a celebrated folk singer who wrote the famous activist song Universal
Soldier to winning an Academy Award for writing Up Where We Belong to
her five-year stint as a regular on Sesame Street. In one episode she
breast-fed her infant son Cody.
"I remember seeing that and thinking about how proud she made
aboriginal women because nursing is a part of our culture. During
those days it was kind of a hidden thing, so to see Buffy doing it on
Sesame Street was really something," said Keith Goulet, who took part
in her Cradleboard project when he was a provincial cabinet minister.
Goulet, himself an accomplished aboriginal educator, pointed out that
Sainte-Marie's earning of a degree in education in 1963 before
beginning her musical career was groundbreaking in itself.
"There were only three other aboriginal students at the U of- with me
in 1965. The racism was a lot more outward in those days. When I
heard Buffy's Universal Soldier, I was very proud of this Indian
woman who was using songs and her television appearances to be a
strong spokesperson," he explained.
"In those days you were supposed to keep quiet about racism and just
say, 'Yes sir, no sir' to everything, but she was able to speak about
it to the public at large."
After being noticed by Bob Dylan while performing in a coffee house
in 1964, things happened quickly for Sainte-Marie. She recalls being
24 years old and suddenly rich and famous.
"Because I was travelling and meeting so many people, I found myself
among indigenous people, wealthy people, movie stars and it was then
that I met my first business person. I got taken advantage of in the
business side of things, not because I was aboriginal but because I
was green," she said.
Music executives were baffled about how to market an educated and
politically aware talent with an agenda.
"They expected Pocahontas in fringes and what they got was a course
in aboriginal 101. Businessmen didn't know how to market me, it was
either stoic and beautiful or complaining all the time. But I was out
there in five-inch heels and spouting ideas no one had even heard of yet."
Educating herself and others is still her top priority and she
continues to do that through her digital artwork, her motivational
speeches and the Cradleboard project, aimed to bring knowledge about
aboriginal peoples and their culture into classrooms across North America.
Despite using all kinds of mediums and being a groundbreaker in
digital art and music Sainte-Marie said the greatest educational tool
she's had has been airline tickets.
"Without my airplane tickets I would not have the education people
have given me through my travels," she said.
Sainte-Marie will be touring in support of Running With The Drum in the spring.
Buffy Sainte-Marie: 'I was not the barefoot folk singer in a granny dress'
Oct 27, 2008
TORONTO When she's not touring or teaching, Buffy Sainte-Marie
likes to spend time in her mountain house on the Hawaiian island of
Kauai, tapping away at three computers arranged in a semicircle.
"I might be working on a song and I'll turn around and work on a
(digital) painting and I'll turn around and work on some curriculum,"
the legendary musician, social activist and educator who was born on
the Piapot Reserve in Qu'Appelle Valley, Sask., said in a recent
phone interview from her home.
Sainte-Marie has been using computers since the 1980s to create
digital music, art and teaching tools. Yet many people don't realize
the different ways she is using technology, she said, explaining why
she's releasing the documentary "Buffy Sainte-Marie: A Multimedia
Life" on DVD along with her new album, "Running For The Drum," this
week. The two will be sold separately in the new year.
"I was not the barefoot folk singer in a granny dress - I was doing
electronic music in the '60s," said the singer-songwriter with the
distinct vibrato, noting she created the first-ever totally
quadraphonic electronic vocal album in 1969 ("Illuminations") and
founded the Cradleboard Teaching Project, a free online aboriginal
American curriculum, when the World Wide Web was just starting up in 1996.
From her start as a socially conscious singer mingling with the
likes of Bob Dylan in coffee houses at the end of the beatnik era, to
her five-year stint on "Sesame Street," to winning an Oscar for
co-writing the song "Up Where We Belong," Sainte-Marie's career has
indeed been varied.
Many times she's been approached to participate in biographies that
want to focus on her protest and love songs. She's turned them down.
When Toronto-based CineFocus asked her to do "Multimedia Life," "they
seemed already to have done their homework and to know that I'm more
than the person who wrote 'Universal Soldier' and 'Until It's Time
for You to Go' and 'Up Where We Belong,"' said Sainte-Marie, who has
a PhD in fine arts.
Of course, she's best known for her music. "Running For The Drum" is
Sainte-Marie's 18th album and her first in 15 years.
Recorded with her three-time co-producer Chris Birkett, the 12-track
disc spans several genres through an eclectic blend of
instrumentation and sound, including Tibetan singing bowls and vocals
recorded from powwows.
The track "No No Keshagesh" (a Cree phrase meaning "no more greed")
along with two others offer electronic beats one might hear at a rave
while rockabilly is prominent on several other songs.
Nostalgia kicks in on "Still This Love Goes On," a slow tune about
reservation life that's meant to comfort Sainte-Marie when she's
travelling, she said as she cited the lyrics.
"'Hear the singer soaring, see the jingle dancers, I can smell the
sweetgrass burning' - it's very sensual," said Sainte-Marie, 67, who
was adopted as a child from the reserve near Regina and raised in
Maine and Massachusetts.
"Running For The Drum" was recorded over a year and a half in a
studio at Sainte-Marie's home, where her son - Dakota Starblanket
Wolfchild, a keyboard player in a reggae band - lives next door.
Songs on the new album cover politics, art and the aboriginal people
and while Sainte-Marie says she's "happy with every one" of the
tracks, she'll never be able to pack all of her thoughts into one tune.
"I've never written a song that fully describes my sense of wonder at
life, the world, the universe," said Sainte-Marie, who will be
honoured with a lifetime achievement award at the Canadian Aboriginal
Music Awards in Toronto next month.
"I can't write a song that would ever express what I feel and experience."
Sainte-Marie is set to perform in London, Ont., on Thursday and in
Toronto on Friday. She'll embark on a more extensive tour early next year.