By Troy Sebastian (Co-host of Native Waves Radio, Tuesday 2:00-3:00pm)
“I remember the gymnasium when the drums were there. I used to take my loneliness out there cause I didn’t like the residential school. I spent a lot of time with the drums pounding my frustrations out. That’s how I became a drummer,” says Willie Thrasher, the Inuk folk-rock troubadour from the land of the midnight sun. As though every residential school story involves rock n’ roll redemption. Sadly, they don’t. Many of the stories of residential schools are told in the hard luck proximity of graveyards, where a potpourri of crosses, head stones and rumbling waves of earth without markings sit side step to the schools. The schools were designed to have graveyards. The names weren’t important enough for the graves. The unmarked crosses told all that was needed to tell, unknown Indian child saved by Jesus under a plain white cross.
Willie Thrasher could have been under one of those crosses. He went to residential school in the Yukon at a time when another dead Indian wasn’t much of a big deal, a time not unlike today. Of the 150,000 indigenous children to attend Canada’s residential schools, at least 6,000 died in school. Records were shoddy, many were destroyed, and many just disappeared. Children were buried in common graves, others in graves only marked with plain white crosses. Some children committed suicide, others died attempting to escape, while many more died from the uniquely Canadian alchemy of overcrowding, poor ventilation and tuberculosis. It is a policy described by Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin as “cultural genocide.”
For young Willie, finding rock was a matter of life and death. As he rattles off a list of names of former band mates and touring buddies, it is second nature to hear that this fellow passed on, and so and so isn’t with us anymore. The echoing loss of family and friends is a reverb feedback that aches the bones to the soul. It is the sort of gravity that can weigh you down and kill you, or give you something to live for.
Willie is enjoying a resurgence of attention and accolades for his 1981 album Spirit Child, which hit number one on the CFUV charts in November 2015. “It took 30 years to be number one. It’s good to be number one,” says Thrasher with a laugh. Knowing far too well the odds of making it after such a long road. He is quick to give credit to Kevin Howes, the producer of Native North America: Aboriginal Folk, Rock, and Country 1966-1985 (Vol. 1), as the catalyst for the resurgence. Howes recently received a Grammy nomination for Best Historical Album for his efforts on Native North America, spending more than a decade hunting and gathering the material presented in the double album.
“He took twelve years working really hard, collecting material, getting in touch with us one by one. Sprit Child was underneath other records hidden in the dark; some were for thirty years, sitting there waiting for someone to bring it to life” says Thrasher. Spirit Child’s rediscovery is not unlike that of young Willie’s discovery of the residential school drum kit. “Yes, yes, it’s the same thing,” he agrees.
Spirit Child sounds like the return of a missing brother long thought to never return. With country hooks and rock thumping tempos, Willie’s music is a folk crush time machine that is contemporary and classic. Tracks like “Eskimo Named Johnny” speak to the longing of homeland, for the return to the wild and the loneliness of the urban Indian. “Inuit Chant” rumbles like a romp stomp herd of caribou coming through the land in stampede crescendo. But it’s “We’ve Got to Take You Higher” that really breaks through the rock and folk parameters to express something singularly indigenous with the lyrics: “Yesterday it was hard to know who you are/Together we’re feeling like a shining star/That’s why we’ve got to take you higher/Doing this native song.”
There is something so preciously essential about that line “doing this native song.” It cuts through the limits of what native identity is to manifest a heartfelt and true declaration – this is a native song and it will take you higher. That pride, that sense of self; that Inuit rock is so now and so necessary. It is proof Spirit Child is a timeless classic that is finally getting the attention it deserves. From the desolation of residential school to rock and roll redemption, Willie Thrasher, the Inuk rocker, is on the cusp of an unparalleled resurgence. As Willie says, “wolves don’t live by the rules.”