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Gettin' jazzed in Toronto: 5th Annual Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards

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TORONTO - Among the growing variety of musical categories celebrated at the 5th annual Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards, jazz artists believe it will be sooner than later before their genre has its own distinction.

Of the 17 presentations on Nov. 28 (with 51 nominations by 33 different singers and groups), jazz didn't have its own classification. Instead this musical expression was still lumped among "blues", "folk" or "instrumental", although as Native performers expand the boundaries of their creativity, so too will it be expected that the awards will reflect such tastes.

With four nominations (Best Instrumental; Best Album Design; Best Traditional: Contemporary; Best Folk) David R. Maracle allowed his creative team to "let ourselves go crazy" with his third CD "Natural Resources." By winning the Best Instrumental award, it was his third victory at this national show and Maracle believes the transition between traditional First Nations music with contemporary styles such as jazz is not a huge leap.

"Mohawk sacred songs use a particular scale that's very conducive to jazz. It's pentatonic but we don't think of the method so much, that's why it's pure," said Maracle who lives in the Tyendinaga Territory of eastern Ontario.

In addition to his songwriting and singing, Maracle also creates his own instruments and received assistance on this latest recording from drum maker and musician David Finkle. The CD's title is straightforward according to Maracle because of how the music was composed.

"We use our natural abilities to create and the northern culture is a natural resource. Anything we can get our hands on that makes a sound, we'll use on the album," he said.

As Maracle and Finkle attest to creating the vast majority of instruments they own, which number between 60-80 pieces, several of them might be more worthy for a junk pile than a recording studio including a car's tailpipe that's crooked.

"Everywhere I hit it, it made a different sound so now we have a xylophone effect," Maracle said to which Finkle replied: "When you make your own instruments, you have more connection with the music."

Taking a more conventional route to carve out his niche in the jazz field is Richard Monkman from Edmonton. A guitarist and bassist, he acknowledges that while blues has been accepted, jazz isn't a traditional medium within First Nations yet is within the cusp of Indian society.

"Blues is more accomplished but jazz takes more understanding with the melody and harmony and it's more for the discriminating ear," Monkman said. He thinks that next year's award ceremony will contain a distinct jazz category.

Nominated twice for his debut CD "Rain" (Best Blues; Best Instrumental), Monkman is pleased with these acknowledgements that validate his hard work. He described the title track as possessing a simple melody that can allow the listener to envision a cloud procession.

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The choice of naming the CD after a weather pattern that often displeases most people was actually a tribute to his ancestry and his childhood memories.

"It's not depressing and I remember days in Winnipeg with hot rain. For some people it's negative but for me it's positive," said Monkman who is part Ojibway, part Cree from the Saulteaux tribe. "Water is life and 90 percent of our body is made of water. The CD cover is also red and in the medicine wheel, red represents the Aboriginal side."

While Monkman incorporated red for spiritual purposes, another jazz singer used the bodacious color to enliven her presence on stage. Performing at the award ceremony from her debut CD "The Velvet Devil", Andrea Menard's song "Call My Name" shot up to number two on a Winnipeg radio station.

Menard's elegant red evening dress certainly would have personified the fictional character, Velvet Laurent, from the one-woman play she wrote and performed about a M?tis girl growing up in rural Saskatchewan in the 1930s. "The Velvet Devil" as a play ran three years ago in Regina and has since spawned the CD, which was nominated for Best Folk Album. Menard herself received a nod for the Best Female Artist.

With a vivacious personality, perhaps it would follow that jazz should be a natural musical choice for the Saskatoon resident.

"It's something that comes from my soul. When I heard Ella Fitzgerald, I thought 'That's what I do' and jazz touches my soul," said Menard who otherwise had no other jazz background when growing up.

Now starring on both stage and screen as an actress and singer, Menard is featured in many Aboriginal productions throughout Saskatchewan and Canada. As First Nations television, plays and music have increased in popularity, she believes jazz, along with other disciplines, will become more mainstream within the Native community.

"There's been an explosion of all kinds of music in our people. Before we only sang country and traditional but now we are recognizing there are no limits."

That's a sentiment Monkman shares.

"In Aboriginal teachings there's the emotional, physical, spiritual and mental elements so with jazz you (already) have the mental and physical."

Jazz can also play a role in the traditional teachings of the elders. Maracle, who is complimented by Finkle as being able to play the Mohawk flute "like a jazz saxophonist," described the reason behind "The Quiet Hunt", one of the songs on "Natural Resources."

"Our people will give thanks to what they're going to do and take one of their brothers (an animal) in the forest. That's why they'll present themselves for our use to clothe and feed us and that's why we have to respect them and why the song is powerful," Maracle said.