Singing For Life in Attawapiskat

Attawapiskat First Nation is located at the mouth of the Attawapiskat River on James Bay in Northern Ontario and is home to about 2,000 people. In the fall of 2015 suicide became epidemic. Jackie Hookimaw lost her great-niece Sheridan, who took her life that October. She was 13 years old. Suicide and self-inflicted injuries are among the leading causes of death among First Nations, Métis and Inuit people. Waves of suicides like the one in Attawapiskat are not new. Unemployment, lack of access to education and substandard infrastructure are factors contributing to the depression that besets indigenous communities.

Photo of children beating hand drums.
Learning the beat to accompany the Bear Dance
Jackie’s path and Singing For Love’s crossed in April of 2017, when Rosy Cervantes and Richard Fouchaux were asked to play at an event that culminated with the Toronto debut of Jackie’s documentary on the crisis in her home community. Jackie and her husband, Norbert Witt, attended the fundraising concert for Singing For Love 2017 and soon the idea for a musical intervention was born.

Photo, page of a child's notebook reading “I don't want this land to hurt no more”
“I don’t want this land to hurt no more”
Each of the 5 days will consist of two 90 minute sessions of listening to, learning about and writing music within an indigenous context. Kids will know the indigenous musicians who influenced rock & country music from the earliest times these styles appeared. We’ll hear players whose hearts overflow with music that touches the hearts of others—and write some heartfelt music of our own.

When you’ve been living your entire life in poverty it comes with many issues. They will range from mental health, to inadequate housing, to not having enough to eat because you have to share the food with everyone in the household…

Photo of Jackie Hookimaw-Witt with children of Attawapiskat taking part in performance art inspired by indigenous ways of learning.
Jackie Hookimaw-Witt
We’ll hear indigenous people speak of the healing power of music in their own words. This guided discussion will set the stage for the young people to write songs of their own. Depending on the number of participants, we’ll form 1 or more groups. As the week progresses there will be growing opportunities to learn and practice an instrument. The groups will choose a topic of their own, express it musically and write lyrics. They may choose to write in any language, or a mixture of languages. The sessions will be documented with photographs and video. The music educators will work with local mentors and the group to expose a connection to the land, and a video will be produced to summarize and celebrate the learning.
Photo of youth in Attawapiskat, performance art inspired by indigenous ways of learning.
Youth in Attawapiskat, performing

We leave in 3 weeks. We still need help getting instruments to the far north and with the high cost of food and accommodation. Please consider making a donation either through the GoFundMe page shown here or the donation button in the side panel.

Photos are from Kiskenamahagewin (The Way of Learning), a 30 minute video created by Jackie Hookimaw-Witt and Norbert Witt that promotes Aboriginal education inspired by Aboriginal culture and the land.

Anger’s Not Pretty

Warning: content is graphic.Rosy’s full statement (closed captions).

When Rosy was approached by songwriter/videomaker Timmy Danbrook to become involved in creating a video for his song Anger’s Not Pretty, she wasn’t sure what to expect. The ideas being floated included Spanish lyrics, completely new lyrics, a rearrangement, some orchestration… an open palette. In the end one line, “…but it’s mine” set the direction.

Rosy’s work in the field of domestic violence goes back over 10 years. Throughout all this time she’s seen the victim blamed and chastised, or heard somehow she brought it on herself. Here is a song that makes no excuses. The man in Anger’s Not Pretty knows exactly where his anger resides. Rosy set out to speak of women: “…It is important that the woman realizes that when she suffers violence from her partner, she’s not really loved… the perpetrator [intends] to hurt her.” And she speaks directly to men: “If you, man, can not control your violence, then you need help. Look for it! That will make you feel like a better human being and you can offer your family a life of satisfaction, love and hope.”

The images are graphic and you may want to turn away. To paraphrase the words of Deepa Mehta, speaking recently to a master class for York University film majors after a screening of her Anatomy of Violence: “Don’t fool yourselves. Don’t look at this and think “it’s India [Cuba, Brazil, someplace foreign or far away]. This is universal. This could be Bloor and Spadina.”

A musical intervention

For me, the first step in creating a unit of practice is to brainstorm, and no tool suits that process better than a mind map. For this project I’m using XMind.

Mind Map of the 6-day plan with requirements, schedule and outcomes.
Initial Plan shown as a mind map, displaying requirements, 6-day schedule and outcomes.
You may have noticed Attawapiskat is miles north of S4L’s home base in Toronto. After these details are sketched in I’ll proceed to put as much of the content as possible on line here, using LearnPress. Each participant in the course can be given a login for early and ongoing access, and we’ll be able to see who takes advantage of that. Of course this relies on there being access to computers and internet, which was sometimes problematic even in Toronto. But the organizational benefits are still well worth it to me because I’ve got it running as a WordPress site in an “AMP stack” on my laptop. I’m guaranteed to be able to run it in the classroom with the students.

Clearly it’s an ambitious agenda for six days. The content and plan will be housed on, where interested parties will also be allowed a look behind the scenes. I’ll keep providing updates on our progress.

Can Singing For Love contribute meaningfully to ending the Attawapiskat suicide crisis?

Map of northern Ontario showing Attawapiskat, on the shores of James Bay, 1,054 km northwest of Toronto, and 221 km NW of Moosonee.

Attawapiskat First Nation is a northern indigenous community beset by poverty, lack of support and resources, and a suicide crisis that still hasn’t been adequately addressed. Singing For Love has joined forces with documentarian Jackie Hookimaw and others from the community to raise funding for a musical intervention.

I don’t know if you can hear me
but sometimes I feel so small
I can still hear your laugh perfectly
tell me how did you stay so strong…

—Ali Fontaine ‘I Miss You’ (2016)
Anishinaabe singer/songwriter

We’ve drafted a curriculum for teens that deviates slightly from our signature ukulele program in content, but not in focus or intent. The educational philosophy of Singing For Love is based on the premise that children who are provided tools to express their emotions and a safe, supportive environment in which to do so, will engage with their hopes and those of others to create art that reflects a refreshed positivity, while gaining self esteem. Upon taking our own crash course in Native American Music we’ve put together a course of study for young people that will explore the significant history and influence of indigenous peoples on the music we all listen to today, expose them to the voices of many up and coming young people who look like them, and hand them the tools to find their own voices. The curriculum will be made available on Singing For Love dot Net, a site we’re launching in the new year, to permit early access to the course and also to make this and future Singing For Love curriculum available to others.

The funds we raise will purchase instruments and subsidize our travel and stay for a week in Attawapiskat, where the course will take place over an intensive 6 days in March of 2018. We’ll also launch a GoFundMe site with additional details of exactly what we need and how your donations will be used to help. But you needn’t wait… all funds raised between now and March 2018 through the donation button at the upper right of this window will be applied to this project.

Proud of Being Canadian

YouTube playlist: two summers of Singing For Love

2017 was a very productive summer at Singing For Love. Although camp and other activities affected attendance, as expected this time of year, the small group of talented kids achieved a great deal. They learned he chords C, CMaj7, Am, Am7, F, Dm, Dm7, D7, G, G7, Em, Em(11), and E7. They learned a Blues in A, using a a sliding “double-stop” (a two-note shape that creates an “interval,” in this case a tritone), and heard that it will eventually allow them to quickly and easily play a Blues in any key. They learned why do re mi isn’t just child’s play, and one of the girls, C.R., then used solfege in order to compose the melody of the song we wrote. They shared the reasons they think people want to write songs, and explored several ways to approach songwriting. Together they chose a theme to write about—Canada’s 150th anniversary—brainstormed “power ideas” that form the main concepts they wanted to communicate about their chosen theme.

The kids drew pictures of their favourite things about Canada, to get more ideas for lyrics. They all contributed ideas and lyrics, which Rosy and Richard helped them to organize into 3 verses that built on the “power ideas” they brainstormed in the first two sessions.

Proud of Being Canadian

In Canada we are very patient
We wait for those in need
We are kind we also feed I’m proud of being Canadian.

In Canada we practice acceptance.
One hundred fifty years!
We kept peace through respect I’m proud. of being Canadian.

In Canada we persevere in freedom. We’re grateful to others.
Our help is strong we sing our song We’re proud of being Canadian.

© 2017 Singing For Love

We talked about Truth and Reconciliation—but perhaps not enough. We know our workshops took place on the traditional territory of the Missisaugas of the New Credit, who never ceded the land. We know Canada has not always lived up to all the ideals the kids chose to be in their song. In keeping with the student-centred guidelines we set for ourselves we felt it isn’t our place to tell the kids what to put in their songs. We only encourage and guide them in shaping their own ideas into music, and acquiring the musical and instrumental skills they need to do their ideas justice. We came to trust that this generation will lead Canada ahead in the direction sharing, caring and daring to build a nation on tolerance, acceptance and peace.

2017 — the kids will sing about what makes them happy

Photo of Rosy and child at the whiteboard
Rosy deconstructs songwriting, while the kids work on constructing their song.
Singing For Love is off to a great start this year. The eager group of kids have all had some previous exposure to the ukulele and/or other instruments, and we’ve been moving at roughly twice the pace of last year.

Most referrals this year came through Nellie’s Shelter, meaning their participation isn’t necessarily related to parental involvement in a PARS program. While we’ve talked about the history of music in helping individuals to overcome sadness, physical oppression and the effects of violence, it’s not with the same personal attachment and focus as last year. As always, we are focusing on dignity, respect for self and others, and personal expression.

On the first day the children told us what makes them happy, and what they’d like to write about. Canada, and Canada’s 150th birthday received the strongest interest. So we asked what makes them happy about Canada… and their answers are the stuff of song!

Photo of whiteboard, kids answers to why people write songs
Why do people write songs?
Photo of the kids writing their ideas on the whiteboard.
The chorus will contain the idea of 150 years of learning and teaching acceptance of others.
We worked on learning the parts of the ukulele, proper hand position and  already 6 chords and a C Major pentatonic scale across 3 strings. This week, Rosy asked, “Why do people write songs?” She then outlined the basic structure of a song, suggesting different roles for the chorus and verse.  The kids then put their ideas  on the whiteboard.

We picked up the ukulele and I showed them where to find the remaining 2 notes of the C major scale. We played them in order and then I asked the kids to make up little motifs that match the syllabic flow of some of the ideas they’d written. Some were willing to show us what they came up with, and they all said they’d work on it more at home. Rosy provided one more example of developing an idea into a lyric with a melody, I harmonized it with 3 of the chords they know and… we played it!

Singing for Love 2017 kicks off Tuesday, June 13

Our first session begins 5:30 pm, Tuesday, June 13, at Counterpoint, Suite 605, 920 Yonge St, with 10 participants. There’s still time to get in on the fun! Use the form on the Contact page to get our attention.

photo of ukulele with all parts labelled and additional chart showing string names and numbers
Parts of the Ukulele
Closeup photo of a ukulele bridge with circled numbers 1—4.
The strings are numbered from the ground up. The numbers are circled so they look different from finger numbers.
Photo of the left hand, palm out, fingers apart. T is for thumb. The other fingers are numbered from the index (1) to the pinky (4).
Fingers numbered 1—4; T for thumb

Supermarket Restaurant and Bar, Saturday April 8

Photo of Richard and Rosy in Kensington Market
Rosy & Richard in Kensington for the El Inmigrante video shoot, Summer 2016

This year’s fundraiser for the Summer 2017 session of SingingForLove will take place Saturday April 8 at Supermarket Restaurant and Bar, 268 Augusta Avenue, in the heart of Kensington Market. Proceeds go to transportation and nutrition for the kids, and to supplement curricular resources.

Photo of Certifiably Strung
Certifiably Strung GovFest 2016 promo shot, featuring the original core members

This year Rosy Cervantes y La Sana Rabia will be joined by very special guests, the ukulele ensemble Certifiably Strung, 1st runners up at last year’s GovFest Battle of the Bands Hard Rock Toronto location!

Also appearing: Evanoff, cantante Mexicano, Rock/Pop/Alternative!

Photo of Rosy Cervantes y La Sana Rabia 2016, with logo
Rosy Cervantes y La Sana Rabia 2016

SingingForLove offers the opportunity for young survivors of domestic violence to be heard, to tell their own stories in their own words, and to use music to find and grow their strength.

Children age 9 to 12 will receive instruction on the ukulele in tandem with a history and inspection of the Blues, write and record two pieces of their own. Guided by discussion and encounters with stories of dignity, respect and self discovery, participants collaborate to produce two story-songs on the theme of their happiest and saddest family memories.

Singing For Love empowers youth

When the Blues artist works a short motif into a solo it’s like making a statement. As a young musician practices to master an instrument, developing a sound and style of their own it’s like finding a voice. The Blues is the story of improvisations on poverty, slavery, oppression and struggle, and the transformation of a people.

The basics of the Blues—5 notes and 3 chords—are relatively simple to grasp, and yet they are seeds that grow and may bear fruit for years to come.

This workshop offers young people the way of music as a path to self knowledge, self worth and self expression. Music works physically through rhythm, emotionally through melody and dynamics, and cognitively through the musical and lyrical structure. And the ukulele… just makes everyone smile!

Recording Day — and the kids were hot!

This Wednesday just past, an excited group of kids came out to Quantum Vox Recording, who graciously donated this time to round out the kids’ experience. Due to such things as camp and vacation a couple kids weren’t able to be there, and they were missed. But as we all know, the show must go on!

Owner/Engineer Jimmy Kiddo was fantastic, answering the kids questions as he helped us get set up, and then set up a variety of microphones in strategic locations. The kids learned how to wear the headphones with the cords over their shoulder so they can hold the ukulele. We experimented with a click track, but in the end we decided just to follow my playing/conducting like we did back at Counterpoint. It was a hot and humid day, and after a couple rehearsals the ceiling fans had to go off. That might have been what motivated the kids to do such a great job! We did both songs in two takes for the backing ukulele tracks. Then we nailed the vocals and the girls overdubbed a call and response-inspired vocal on Sad Song. We all sang It’s a Very Happy Time — and headed onto the front porch for a much deserved ice cream!

Next week we’ll wrap up and play for an audience of parents, caregivers and friends. Where did the summer go?