Before his execution, Louis Riel left behind this prophecy; “My people will sleep for 100 years, but when they awake, it will be the artists that give them their spirit back.” Turns out he was right, as directors PJ Marcellion and Hermon Farahi prove in When We Awake, a documentary about Indigenous musicians who are bringing their culture’s music into the era of iTunes and Spotify. This documentary kind of serves as the perfect follow-up to Rumble, another documentary about the impact of Native culture on modern music. These films are similar, yet they are different. Rumble focused on Indigenous musicians of yesteryear who changed the face of Jazz and rock music.
When We Awake is about Indigenous musicians of today who are elevating their music to chart topping levels. It’s a story about Tanya Tagaq, a Juno Award winning singer whose topping the charts with her throat singing. It’s a story about Rex Smallboy, who led War Party, aboriginal equivalent to Public Enemy. It about the Jerry Cans, a folk music group who sings in Inuktitut so their children can stay close to their culture. And you bet it’s about A Tribe Called Red, whose blend of First Nations music and techno have made them international sensation. These are just a few of many musicians the film focuses on.
For each musician is a guarantee of amazing footage of live performances. Passion flows through every second of footage, the shooting Tagaq like a jazz singer in a golden age musical , and filming dancer James Jones powwow dancing on stage with The Tribe Called Red. In these moments, we see cultural music adapting to modern times with artists blending it with current genres like hip hop and electronic. The film does give focus on the old school kind of musicians, including this town’s own Yellowknives Dene Drummers, but for the most part, the film’s focus is on more current trends.
Speaking of current trends, the film gives equal focus on Indigenous rights activism of today, from Idle No More to Standing Rock. With artists traveling to the lower east side of Vancouver or in reserves, Marcellion and Farahi portrays the issues Indigenous people are dealing with today, from severe poverty to corporations infringing on their land. Through those struggles, the film makes the case that music and protests are connected by their skills of building indigenous pride as they make their voices heard.
Whether through music or interviews, musicians know how to get their voices heard. I’ve noticed how articulate these musicians are in documentaries. When they discuss their music, musicians make you feel their passion for their craft. You get more passion from the musicians in this film because they connect it with their culture. In one memorable interview, Tagaq describes her throat singing as “voyaging in the mysteries of being alive.” But I think the artist who’ll bring up the most discussion is Andrew Morrison and Nancy Mike, the married couple who front the Jerry Cans. Despite some objections, these two sing folk songs entirely in Inuktitut as a way for their children to connect to their Inuit root. Being a white guy, Morrison openly brings up the conversation of a Caucasian person’s place in decolonization and a self-aware question of culture appropriation.
These documentaries are a testament to the efforts of the people of the north to reclaim their cultures. Music is the strongest tool for a culture to find its voice. With time a musician teaches the youth how to use the drums, you see students connecting their heritage. With each live performance, musicians garner more interest in their culture. With each award comes a larger platform for that voice to be heard.
In the words of Buffy Saint-Marie:
“When the ancient drum rhythms rings,
The voice of our forefather sings.”
 YIFF seems to think so too, considering these films are playing on the same day.
 He even got to collaborate with Chuck D.