FOND DU LAC, Minn. – An expectant hush falls on the crowd as the group of Anishinaabe women standing in a half circle lifted their hand drums and the first beat vibrated in the sage scented air.
As the group began to sing – “A way hi ya a way hi yeah a way hi oh-oh” – others in the room began to dance in place. Ten drums and about 15 singers ranging in age from 4 to over 60 played and sang to empower their sisters, aunties, grandmothers, mothers and daughters. The Oshkii Giizhik Singers, together for almost four years, were envisioned in a dream that grew into reality.
Renting five hours of recording time at Sacred Heart Recording Studio in downtown Duluth, the group sang 14 songs, deciding as they went if they liked a particular cut enough to keep it. The recording studio is in one of the first churches established in Duluth as a mission for American Indians. One of the group’s founders, the woman behind the dream and their spokesperson, Lyz Jaakola, said she chose that space to record in because of its natural reverb.
Not realizing those five hours in the studio were their first taste of fame, the women entered their CD, “It’s a New Day,” into the 11th Annual Native American Music Awards held Oct. 3 at the Seneca Niagara Casino & Hotel in Niagara Falls.
“It was the group’s first CD,” Jaakola said. “We sent it in to the awards and my thought was that if nothing else, the committee there would become aware of what we are doing. We didn’t anticipate at all that we would win an award with our first CD. I told the group that we were officially in the nominee category. There were 25 entered in the traditional category and 20 groups in the debut group category. I didn’t anticipate that we would be in the traditional music category because of the perception in some cultures of women using hand drums.”
The group, completely taken by surprise and “screaming like schoolgirls,” took the stage in their new formal gowns to accept the first place award in the traditional category. “We screamed like mad and scared everybody in front of us,” Jaakola said. “I wasn’t prepared to make a speech; none of us thought we were going to win. The girls were crying and hugging each other. We went backstage and they took our picture with the award.”
Jaakola said people still question women using hand drums to sing. “As long as we have been doing this, we have been encouraged repeatedly by elders from places where the culture is very vibrant and the ties to our historical teachings are very strong.”
“My partner’s father heard some of our rough cuts when we made our first CD and said that we should make a sweetheart CD because the boys have made lots of recordings about conquest and some of them get a little disrespectful to women,” Jaakola said. “He said we should make something to counterbalance that. I thought it was a good idea, but that drumming style is a lot different than what our drumming level is; it’s a lot harder. Now that we have started to work on some of the songs we are really having fun with it.”
The group writes the majority of its songs, while others have been passed down from traditional elders or sought by offering tobacco and asking the spirits for a song.
Jaakola is excited to see how the group’s current project turns out. One of the women in the group wrote a song about convenience store love and how she met her husband. Another song is about a love for potato soup. “There are a couple that are a little sassy but not in a bad way. I think someone is writing a love song for the pizza man too. One of our members is involved in the Sacred Hoop Project, helping women and children who are victims of domestic violence or sexual assault, and she has written a survivors song that will be the first track on the new CD.”
Jaakola has a master’s degree in music and teaches music and Indian studies at Fond Du Lac Tribal and Community College, the only combined tribal college and state community college in the U.S. She also taught head start through 12th grade at the Fond du Lac Ojibwe School on the reservation for many years. Jaakola has also sung opera, fronts a blues band and has sung in concert and recital halls.
“To have been able to be part of this group and be recognized on a national level for the best traditional recording, that was the highlight of my career. That means more to me than when I sang opera in Rome and choral music in Carnegie Hall, which was very cool, but as a Native artist this has meant more to me than any of those things.
“I chose to stay on the reservation, but have friends who chose to perform and tour with New York Broadway companies who always want to know how I can stay here. They don’t understand the tribal definition of success. It’s not just about me, in order to feel like I have been a success at what I do I have to bring my family with me – my cousins, aunties and grandmas – and make sure that I am helping the community.”
Jaakola said winning the award has changed the feeling of the group a little bit; that expectations may be a bit different now with their national recognition.
“For me it is still about encouraging women regardless of where they are in their walk; that they can sing and perform with us and that is what I think is at the heart of Oshkii Giizik – meaning ‘its a new day,’ or depending on the dialect, ‘fresh cedar’ or ‘young cedar.’ The drum is community-based and women are always welcome to join. That is how we began, and that is how we will continue as a singing group.”
Jaakola said others have paved the way for women’s hand drum groups, including Ulali, the first Native American women’s a cappella group that created a new genre of Native American music and inspired the creation of other Native women’s groups.
“Also in Minnesota, the Neeconis Singers made it possible for us do to what we do. And so this award isn’t ours alone, we stand on the shoulders of giants, as they say.”