AUTHOR’S NOTE: The following review was published in Red Deer College’s The Draft on March 22, 2012.
On February 29, Red Deer College’s Arts Centre was host to a night of History and Hope: Songs and Stories presented by three-time Juno Award winner and Officer of the Order of Canada Susan Aglukark.
Though not as big a name as Celine Dion or Sarah McLachlan, Aglukark has a small fan base with songs including O Siem and Hina Na Ho (Celebration). In fact, one audience member boasts that she named her son after Aglukark’s song Shamaya.
With an Inuit drum beat and catchy pop lyrics (written in both English and Inuktitut), her music has been referred to as “the soundtrack of the native identity.” And now, she speaks on the stage that has previously been host to such world renowned Canadians as author Michael Ondaatje(The English Patient) and journalist Peter C. Newman(The Mulroney Tapes).
This is probably the easiest review to write. While most speakers concern specific issus such as the oil sands and the Middle East, Aglukark devotes this time to tell the story of her life. She does comment on the current state of reserves, but most of her focus is on how she came to be a singer. Plus, the whole show was only an hour long, not including the Q&As. She does tell a lot of story in such short time.
Her life seemed to have led her to a musical career. As it can probably be guessed, she grew up in a musical family. In fact, her father once found a guitar in a Dumpster and learned to play by listening to Elvis LPs.
Her family was also a preacher family. Her father did missionary work in Israel. Plus her former classmates once named her “most likely to become a preacher.” Funny how musicians seem to come from religious background(ranging from Johnny Cash to Katy Perry).
In one amusing segment, she talks about her parents’ priceless reaction after revealing her singing career.
Mother: (excited) Really? You got a record deal?
Father: Isn’t that Rock n’ Roll?
As Susan would say, “As long as Mom’s happy?”
She admits that at first, she never once thought of herself as a singer. She wanted to be a pilot, and even went to ground school to get her pilot’s license.
But while interviewing elders in Pond Inlet, she was inspired by one woman.
“As she told her story, she went to song. When she sang, I realized that she was the last of her generation to know the classic culture. The last of the residential school generation.”
This epiphany inspired her to write Searching, a poem about living in a world between tradition and modern days. With this poem, Aglukark and some partners were inspired to do a documentary which somehow resulted in one of the earliest seven and a half minute music videos on MuchMusic. She finds it funny that she didn’t even have an album and yet the only other person with a sevel and a half minute long video on MuchMusic was Michael Jackson.
And this led to her first album Arctic Rose and a Christmas Album. And yet, she always thought it was a fluk and she would end up back at ground school.
She admits that even when the major record labels started calling, she kept saying “No, I’m not ready. I’m not a songwriter. I want to fly planes.” Plus English was her second language.
But with guidance from a mentor (who tells her “write in Inuktitut”), she signs with EMI, the same record company under contract with the Rankin Family, her favorite band.
And this led to This Child, her biggest selling album. Unfortunatly, she didn’t get much money for the album. For fellow musicians, she discourages them from signing on a record company.
“They can eat you up.”
And with this success, Aglukark found the something that was missing from her life.
“I didn’t know how to find closure,” she states. “I found it in songwriting.”
One thing it helped her find closure in was abuse she went through in early life. She doesn’t go into any details of the abuse or even reveal the abuser. One would suggest she should but that would be disrespectful.
What she does talk about is the trail where the abuser got a reduced sentence. This led her to leave her home. She would channel this part of her life in the song Still Running.
She only sings three songs throughout the presentation, and each is a subtle but beautiful performance. Each song is a balancing act between Country/Pop style and Inuit music tradition. In some songs, she even sings in Inuktitut. And yet the styles are balanced to perfection and elevate the heart of the song. The beat of the drums are like the steps of a ballet dancer; soft and graceful. And the chorus seems to be spirits joining Aglukark.
And yet they are still catchy songs. Notably, you can’t listen to Hina Na Ho without wanting to round dance. But her masterpiece is O Siem. The opening drumbeats has the listeners stepping light on the ground and the lyrics have them reaching for the stars.
But at the heart of her stories is what she calls “the learning journey.” She was always put ina place where she asked what to do next with her life. She was never sure how she would connect with the world.
“I couldn’t ask my parents what direction to take. They wouldn’t even know”
Even in her singing career, she’d tell her friends, “I’m not what everyone thinks I am” or “I don’t think I can do this.”
And then there was the pressure of making a new album. And through it all, she learned to trust her instincts when she left home. And at the same time, remembering that “you are your own worst critic” through her music career. She realized that she had many people around her, friends, a husband and a son she plays word games with.
PS: If anyone is anticipating a guest appearance on CBC’s Arctic Air, forget it. She has too many bad memories from her music videos. And no, she never got her pilot’s license. “I’ve never found the time.”