Nova Scotia·Atlantic Voice

This milestone of Mi'kmaw music has been out of print for decades — but not for much longer

A new Atlantic Voice documentary tracks the story of the Sons of Membertou's iconic album, and how a collaboration with a branch of the Smithsonian Institution is bringing it new life.

Atlantic Voice documentary tracks the story of the Sons of Membertou's iconic album

A CD case has artwork depicting a rising sun, two open hands and a flute.
The Sons of Membertou's debut album was recorded in 1994 and sold out of its run of CDs and cassettes. A reissuing of it is now in the final stages with the Smithsonian Folkways record label. (Erin Pottie/CBC)

In their decades of existence, the drumming group Sons of Membertou have gained iconic status, becoming a fixture of community events and concerts across Cape Breton, and influencing the next generation of Mi'kmaw musicians.

"My mother always had the CD of the Sons of Membertou," said Morgan Toney, the acclaimed young fiddler from We'koqma'q First Nation. 

"I think that was actually the first album I ever heard, and that was before I was able to grasp the wonderful art of music. I just remember those sounds being played in the kitchen as mom was cooking."

But those sounds — from their CD Wapna'kik: The People of the Dawn — are hard to find.

Recorded in 1994, Wapna'kik sold out of its initial run of CDs and cassettes in days and was nominated for an East Coast Music Award. The record came at a time of cultural revival for the Membertou First Nation, and Wapna'kik channeled that energy with its recordings of contemporary and traditional Mi'kmaw songs, almost entirely sung in Mi'kmaw.

But since those highs, the album has gone out of print.

"In 2023, we think of music as just like everywhere. Your streaming service, it's, you know, 10 bucks a month and you got 20 million tracks or something," said Harris Berger, an ethnomusicologist and the director of the Research Centre for the Study of Music, Media and Place at Memorial University.

"But there's tons of music that isn't accessible, and making important cultural documents available can be extremely meaningful for communities."

In the age of Spotify, it's hard to believe any music is inaccessible. But the Sons of Membertou's debut album is proof. The iconic collection of Mi'kmaw music has been out of print for decades - until a branch of the Smithsonian Institution came along. Wendy Bergfeldt brings us this decades-spanning story of revival.

American interest

Enter Smithsonian Folkways. The American non-profit record label — a branch of the larger Smithsonian Institution — re-releases music from across the world, and had recently turned its attention to Canada. 

"One of the priorities that we have right now is working with Indigenous communities, and I think with the Sons of Membertou and the Mi'kmaq Nation, I think that happened in a fortuitous sort of way," said John Smith, an associate director with Smithsonian Folkways.

That fortuity came through the Centre for Sound Communities at Cape Breton University. Its director, Marcia Ostashewski, connected Folkways with the Sons of Membertou — a founding member of which, Graham Marshall, had taken one of her classes.

Communication opened up the possibility of Smithsonian Folkways re-issuing the album, talks which soon became a reality. The re-release of Wapna'kik is ballparked for 2024, in time for the 30th anniversary of its recording.

"We are still speaking our language. We are still practicing our culture. I think that is the utmost important and sacred thing that we are doing today. And with our album that would contribute for the next generations to come," said Marshall.

"Now it becomes digitized, now it becomes something that they can go in and obtain anywhere on their phone. And it's something of a legacy that we can leave when we're gone."

A group of men and women, dressed similarly in blue shirts and Mi'kmaw regalia and adornments, stand against a rocky outcrop.
This photo of the original lineup of the Sons of Membertou was part of the artwork for their record Wapna'kik: The People Of The Dawn, released in 1995. (Barry Bernard)

In late October, the re-release was celebrated at the Society for Ethnomusicology's annual conference in Ottawa, a gathering of musical specialists from across North America, with the Sons of Membertou taking part in panels and discussions.

"Going through, hearing different experiences over the last few days of the conference, it gives me great pride that our music and the parts of our language that are in our music are going to be preserved," said Austin Christmas, an original member of the Sons of Membertou.

Christmas, the Sons of Membertou and Morgan Toney capped off the Ottawa experience with a concert at the Canadian Museum of History.

"This music is what we have. It's our responsibility to our descendants to teach this music to them," said Sons of Membertou founding member Darrell Bernard, on stage before the sold-out crowd of about 400.

"The next generation will carry it on and the generation after that will carry it on. We're still here."

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With files from Wendy Bergfeldt

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