On paper, reggae and traditional Lil'wat chants seem a strange combination. This is due, in part, to the fact that no one's tried it before.
Before Kalan Wi, that is. The group, made up of three members of Lil'wat Nation, Leroy Joe, Russell Wallace and Vania Stager, and Nova Scotia transplant, Richard Doucet, have found that tribal sweet spot. The result is Celebration, a set of 10 spirituals that infuse both English and the Lil'wat language with feel-good Island flare.
Four of the songs are based on traditional Lil'wat chants. Given the spiritual nature of both reggae and First Nations culture the songs work surprisingly (or perhaps unsurprisingly) well.
"I guess reggae to me is tribal," says Joe, the group's principal songwriter. "It's, I don't know, it's spiritual to me."
For years, he'd toyed with the idea of combining traditional Lil'wat chants with modern music. In 1992, while visiting Switzerland he wrote a folk ballad using chanting of his own. A few years later, while living in Nelson, he wrote the first reggae song with Lil'wat lyrics, which would become the foundations for Kalan Wi.
As the years went on, Joe would often find the traditional courting chant, "The Berry Picking Song," stuck in repeat inside his head. As he played it over and over, it took on a reggae feel. Each time he sat down to work some actual music to the melody, it always came out a reggae song.
Joe, a trained jazz musician who grew up listening to rock and blues, was never much of a reggae fan. Sure, he liked Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, but he never wrote reggae. Still, as the songs poured out of him, they took on the island flavour.
"All I know is it feels so good," he says.
The album was funded through a First Peoples' Heritage, Language & Culture Council grant, as the project does work to promote and preserve First Nations language. Members of Lil'wat Nation have been quite taken by the songs and Joe has heard several reports that Mount Currie residents, youths especially, are now inspired to learn the language.
This wouldn't be the case, of course, if the songs were no good. Fortunately, that's not the case. They're feel-good spirituals, each one a celebration of life that extends beyond First Nations heritage.
"I wasn't trying to revive the language or anything. It just felt right, because of my culture, my people, my history. I'm a Lil'wat, so I wanted to write songs in my language," he says.
One need not understand the language — the chords and the harmonies do the job well enough. Celebrations is available now through iTunes and CD Baby. Kalan Wi is holding a CD release party at the W2 Media Café in Vancouver.