METIS FOLK SINGER CON­TIN­UES TO EX­PLORE HER MU­SI­CAL ROOTS

Edmonton Journal - - YOU - ROGER LEVESQUE

Laura Vin­son has worked all over Al­berta’s mu­sic scene, but for the past few decades, she has grav­i­tated more and more to search­ing out her own iden­tity in mu­sic and his­tory. To­day, she’s singing about her own roots in what she calls “Moun­tain Métis” cul­ture.

“We are dif­fer­ent from the Métis of the Red River Val­ley and from the plains Cree na­tives. We’re more of a pack horse cul­ture, with horses in­volved since Day 1. That’s how I grew up. I was a guide and out­fit­ter on horse­back, like my fa­ther, pack­ing through the skinny trails in the Rocky Moun­tains.”

Lis­ten to Vin­son’s songs and you will pick up on her im­plicit mis­sion, to ex­plore the his­tory of na­tive and Métis peo­ple, and to bring greater recog­ni­tion to the key role that those an­ces­tors played in the early his­tory of the Cana­dian Rock­ies. Moun­tain Métis cul­ture was cen­tred in the Athabasca Val­ley near Jasper and through the area of present-day Jasper Na­tional Park from the early 1800s where many worked as guides for the North­west and Hud­son’s Bay com­pa­nies in the fur trade.

“I re­ally want to tell their story, the way they were in­stead of what’s in most of the text­books.”

Vin­son’s great-great-great-great grand­fa­ther was a blond Métis guide nick­named Tête Jaune (French for yel­low head), one of the first per­sons to find a path through what came to be known as the Yel­low­head Pass in the Rock­ies (his­tor­i­cal de­bate con­tin­ues as to whether he was the same per­son known as Pierre Bos­ton­nais or pos­si­bly Louis Loyer).

In­volved in mu­sic for most of her life, Vin­son will soon cel­e­brate two key events. This week is her 25th wed­ding an­niver­sary to Dave Martineau, long a key part of her band and her co-song­writer and pro­ducer.

It’s also her 70th birthday later this month. Still very en­er­getic with no ob­vi­ous sign of slow­ing down, the singer jokes that “I’m sup­posed to be re­tired, but in­stead I’m just tired.”

Born in Ed­mon­ton, Vin­son was raised in the town of Brule, near Hin­ton, by a fa­ther of Chero­kee, Ir­ish and English back­ground and a mother of mixed Cree, Iro­quois and French eth­nic­ity. She rode horses as soon as she could walk and fol­lowed trails, fish­ing and camp­ing be­fore she ever started school back in Ed­mon­ton.

Later, she be­came an art and drama ma­jor to earn her bach­e­lor of ed­u­ca­tion from the Univer­sity of Al­berta. She moved back to Brule a decade ago, where she

runs a bed and break­fast and her hus­band runs a mu­sic store and stu­dio. Never too old to learn or teach, she’s tak­ing pi­ano lessons and guid­ing be­gin­ners on gui­tar.

Fol­low­ing an early con­tract with

I re­ally want to tell their story, the way they were in­stead of what’s in most of the text­books.

Roy­alty Records, Vin­son has recorded most of her re­cent al­bums in­de­pen­dently. She and Martineau have also cre­ated nu­mer­ous film sound­tracks and they just re­ceived their fifth AMPIA nom­i­na­tion for a re­cent doc­u­men­tary called Moun­tain Men. Sev­eral of those films have been col­lab­o­ra­tive doc­u­men­taries on as­pects of na­tive or Métis his­tory.

Vin­son’s songs have also over­lapped with those sound­tracks. Her lat­est CD and dig­i­tal re­lease, Warrior, in­cludes num­bers like Moun­tain Girl, Tête Jaune, writ­ten about her great-great-great-great­grand­fa­ther, and the ti­tle tune for the late Ed­mon­ton mu­si­cian Fred Larose.

Vin­son first per­formed in pub­lic at 13 and was do­ing so reg­u­larly by high school. Early on, she joined up with folk and rock bands and then ac­tively pur­sued a career in coun­try, but she ad­mits, “I al­ways felt like a round peg in a square hole.”

That con­fu­sion with her own iden­tity first came out in Vin­son’s early song Half A Half Breed. She formed her band Free Spirit about 30 years ago.

Along the way, Buffy Sainte Marie was a big in­flu­ence. So were Joni Mitchell, Johnny Cash and Joan Baez. About 20 years ago, she chose to fo­cus on the roots of her own cul­ture, writ­ing and play­ing songs in an open-ended roots style that has since come to en­tail aboriginal in­flu­ences like the pri­mal 2/4 beat of na­tive rhythms along with folk, Celtic dance rhythms and Euro­pean el­e­ments.

“The Métis fid­dle style comes from the Celtic and French Cana­dian tra­di­tions,” Vin­son ex­plains, “and I also want to re­flect how the Euro­peans had an in­flu­ence on the na­tive cul­ture.”

She has even had a Scot­tish bag­piper on stage and mu­si­cians like Maria Dunn, Dale Ladouceur and Far­ley Scott have con­trib­uted to Vin­son’s band.

“It’s not as lu­cra­tive and you don’t get as much ra­dio play, but what I’m do­ing now is much more sat­is­fy­ing ar­tis­ti­cally be­cause I’m singing about who and what I am. I also think there’s a bit of a sway in the mu­sic in­dus­try back to­wards roots mu­sic, es­pe­cially with the up­surge in folk fes­ti­vals.”

Over the years, Vin­son’s band has played the Ed­mon­ton Folk Mu­sic Fes­ti­val twice, along with other Al­berta fests like North Coun­try Fair. Her mu­sic has taken her to tour Europe and Asia. She still puts in at least a dozen shows a year.

For its up­com­ing date at the Ar­den, Free Spirit will in­clude Martineau on pedal steel, do­bro and gui­tar, his brother Paul Martineau on drums, bassist Carla Rugg, Karen Don­ald­son Shep­herd on violin, and Vin­son her­self on vo­cals, gui­tar and hand drum, plus dancers Jesse McMa­hon and Eli­jah Wells.

Starry Night is a ben­e­fit for the Aboriginal Star of the North Re­treat Cen­tre in St. Al­bert.

Laura Vin­son draws on her back­ground as a ‘Moun­tain Métis’ as she crafts her mu­sic for the band Free Spirit. She per­forms at the Ar­den Theatre on May 16.

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