Kalan Wi knew they had a unique sound when they released their debut album, Celebrate, a year ago.
The Mount Currie band — whose members have been playing music for decades, save for singer Vania Stager who is new to performing — blended reggae grooves and the roots of traditional Lil'wat chants to create an album that straddled the line between deeply cultural and just plain infectious.
"We knew people liked us," says Leroy Joe, who writes most of the songs for the group. "The CD is selling well and people really love the music."
But when an e-mail arrived in their inbox a few weeks ago informing them they had been nominated for two Native American Music Awards — an honour for which they competed with other bands and singers from across North America — they felt a sense of validation. "It's a complete honour," Joe says. "We still can't believe it, to be honest. When I got the e-mail I was just like, 'Wow, is this for real?' I had to go look on the website to see, 'Yeah, we've been nominated in two categories."
Those categories are Best World Music and Best Historical Linguistic.
Joe explains the latter nomination: "For this CD, we got a grant from the First Peoples' Heritage, Language and Culture Council because it preserves our language, preserves our history, preserves our songs. Some of them are based on actual, traditional songs that I've composed into this style of music."
One example is "The Berry Picking Song" which everyone in the Lil'wat nation knows, he says. "When I was listening to it, I started singing it and started playing the melody on my guitar. It had a certain reggae feel, so I wrote the lyrics around that song and what it's based on," he says.
The blend of unlikely genres could also explain the world music genre tag. "To me, world music is usually cultural," Joe says. "That's how we fit in. We use our language. We use our chanting. A lot of our songs are derived from drumming songs."
The awards have been held annually since 1998, when they were created to help give exposure to Native American musicians. This year, there are just under 30 categories, ranging from Best Country to Pow Wow and Pop.
The award ceremony was supposed to be held in Buffalo, New York back in November, but the main organizer had to postpone the event after her home was badly damaged in Hurricane Sandy. Now, they're slated to take place in May. Joe says the group is hoping to attend, but it depends on whether they can drum up the funds for travel. "We want to go — especially if we're going to win," he adds.
Judges whittled away at submissions, narrowing them down to just six finalists, but now it's up to voters to decide the winners of each category. Joe is hoping they can rally people from across Canada to help them sweep both categories. "We want people in the Sea to Sky Corridor to vote for us," he says. "We're not just representing Native people, we're representing Pemberton and B.C., Vancouver, Canada."
Anyone can vote, he adds. To cast a virtual ballot, voters just have to create a password on the NAMA site (nativeamericanmusicawards.com). While the group was passed over for awards on this side of the border this year, Joe says they appreciate being chosen from such a large pool of talent for NAMA. "It will mean a lot to us to be recognized for our work, not just as Native people, but as musicians," he says. "You get an award and it gives you prestige, more gigs, maybe. As a band we all aspire to just be musicians fulltime. Right now, we can't afford that luxury."
Besides trying to solicit votes, the group has been spending some time in the studio with hopes of releasing the follow-up to Celebrate in late fall. Currently, they've recorded about two songs. "It's going to be a pretty heavy album," Joe says. "Chanting, spiritual-based, the whole Kalan Wi thing and more."