Guy Louie Jr.'s Ahousat, a Bear Song was part of Pendulum - An Indigenous Showcase at the Belfry Theatre Feb. 23 and 24. Louie Jr. is pictured at the far left with other particiants in the piece. (Eric Plummer)
Guy Louie Jr. was a teenager when he was awakened to the power of songs from his ancestral homeland. The lessons came in the form of recordings the youngster received from his grandfather, Hudson Webster, which contained voices and drumming from Ahousaht.
“Most of my learning was through cassette tapes, recordings and things like that,” said Louie Jr., who grew up in Victoria. “I was about 14 going on 15 when I first began interest in the culture. It took its full swing when I was 16.”
Since 1996 he’s been part of the drumming sessions held at the Fernwood Community Centre, a weekly cultural gathering that has brought Ahousaht members and other Nuu-chah-nulth-aht in Victoria together each Monday.
“I just wanted to sing every day,” recalled Louie Jr. of his teenage years.
As he learned the traditional songs, the aspiring drummer convinced his cousin, Calvin Louie, to take up the practice as well.
“I just phoned him up one day: ‘I’m going to give you a tape, you should learn these and sing with me,’ and he said, ‘Okay’ and we’ve been doing it ever since,” said Louie Jr. “I honestly had a vision in that time that I could give opportunity to people in this community that I never had.”
On Feb. 23 and 24 Louie Jr. brought his drumming to the theatrical stage with the performance of Ahousat, a Bear Song. The piece was part of Pendulum – An Indigenous Showcase, a collection of eight different acts at Victoria’s Belfry Theatre that draw upon the cultural traditions of Aboriginal communities from across Canada.
Like the regular sessions at the Fernwood Community Centre, Ahousat, a Bear Song involves members of Louie Jr.’s family. Inspiration for the story of a struggle between a man and a bear came from Hudson Webster.
“My grandfather had a vision of a bear and a man dancing together,” explained Louie Jr. “It does talk about my own life, and perhaps life in general. There’s always a problem that begins, then there’s conflict or fighting, negotiation, and then there’s a resolve - or unity – whether it’s within couples or the family or between two different families, there’s always that process.”
In the early part of the performance Louie Jr.’s voice cuts through the darkness of the theatre with a supernatural strength that seems to emanate from something deep and ancient. As Nuu-chah-nulth drumming, singing and dancing ensues growling performers dressed as a bear and warrior circle each other in the middle of the stage.
Like the other acts in the Pendulum show, Ahousat, a Bear Song is a powerful contemporary composition based on First Nations traditions. Other acts in the show include Ohen:ton Kariwentehkhwa, Iroquois giving of thanks, and ANSWER, an all-female drum group.
“Each group had to negotiate what was appropriate; each person had to follow their own cultural protocol,” said the show’s producer, Lindsay Delaronde. “It’s that merging of traditional Indigenous worldview with contemporary theatre.”
Delaronde put the showcase together as part of her term as the City of Victoria’s Indigenous Artist in Residence. The visual and performance artist is in four of the eight acts in the showcase, including a solo performance called Pendulum that incorporates video projection and a recording of a voice leaving a message.
“It’s actually a memorial piece for my late partner who passed away exactly a year ago,” said Delaronde. “It’s about grief, letting go and healing.”
Although many of the show’s participants have been performing their whole lives, the Belfry showcase presented a different opportunity by bringing these practices to a theatrical stage.
“It’s just been a real learning curve for all of us because a lot of the people participating are not trained theatrical people,” said Delaronde. “We’ve been doing this our whole lives, but it’s not considered performing; it’s our way of life.”
“It’s on a theatre stage, it’s a theatre setting, there’s so many different protocols in this theatre than there is to a potlatch,” noted Louie Jr. before the first performance “It’s definitely making me nervous. I’ve performed in front of thousands of people at canoe journeys. I still get nervous then, but usually it’s no problem. This particular setting is rather different.”
This different approach drew crowds over Pendulum’s three public shows, including a sell-out on the last night.
Delaronde hoped that the Indigenous showcase could bring audience members into a transformative experience. Drumming has given Louie Jr. such an opportunity over his life.
“It’s really almost unexplainable; I’m brought to a different place, like I’m expressing who I really am,” he said. “That was my destiny; I worked so hard to be in that place. I really honestly get the same feeling seeing my children being born - it’s really the same feeling, especially when there’s lots of us and we’re all singing in sync.”