Edmonton’s nêhiyawak uses its indigenous identity to produce a unique sonic blueprint
Edmonton’s indigenous indie three-piece, nêhiyawak, is the sonic representation of the covenant between ancestral tradition and a contemporary culture. The band creates soundscapes that represents their cultural history.
“We are Cree, so our approach to culture is in the very fabric of what we do,” drummer Marek Tyler says. “The songs are references just by us playing them. From song to song there’s material that makes those narratives.”
After reuniting at a family dinner, Tyler and his cousin Kris Harper began jamming in Tyler’s basement. After the first couple of jams, the energy felt marvelous.
“It just kind of blew on the coals of something. It’s like the feeling of meeting somebody new for the first time,” Tyler says.
With only drums, guitar, and vocals, the sound was missing something. To remedy this, Tyler and Harper recruited bassist and keyboard player Matthew Cardinal into the mix.
“He just evened everything out with his keys and bass. It was like we were leaning on one side of the boat and then everything just settled,” Tyler says.
The moniker nêhiyawak comes from Cardinal’s father, Garry, an elder in the Cree community. The name translates to “Cree People.”
“We’re accountable to Garry now and that means that if he sees that we’re not using the name right, then he can keep us accountable,” Tyler says. “He can say, ‘Look, boys, this is what I think.’ So if we’re going to make a band decision and we’re having a tough time with it, we have our elders like Garry, my mom, and Kris’ mom to go to for guidance.”
The band members stress that everything they do, whether it’s writing songs, releasing albums, or playing live, comes from a place of “respect, culture, identity, and distinctiveness.”
“We hope that what we are doing is done in a good and respectful way and that we’re creating an environment that enables an intersection of culture, the teachings of our parents and our grandparents while also talking about our own upbringing,” Tyler says. “The work itself is indie rock, but It’s all about learning about culture. It’s not us versus them. It’s ‘we.’”
That respectful doctrine has lead to many achievements for nêhiyawak including the very first Edmonton Music Award for Indigenous Recording of the Year for the song “Tommaso.”
“I think symbolically it’s important to recognize and support indigenous artists. We’re starting to see that perspective and narrative be more common. That’s what I like to see,” Tyler says. “If the legacy of that award for the other people who are coming down the pipe enables them to assert their narrative and join a conversation, then I think it’s a good idea.”
The band also recently released a sound score for Conor McNally’s film ôtênaw, a documentary that tells the oral story of the city and deals with the history and treatment of the land, territory, and culture while also chronicling the layers of human residency on amiskwacîwâskahikan (Edmonton).
“It documents a storyteller and the stories of the land that we are on right now just down the street in the flats by the bridge,” Tyler says. “We recorded all of those songs on a cassette on those lands that the stories came from. We were right there and that was actually the very first set of recordings we did as a band last fall.”
(Score for the film) ôtênaw is a bewitching bulk of recordings, made up of the band’s unique approach to indie rock while fringing on the borders of minimalist noise rock.
A full-length album with a title is ready, but yet to be released. The band is still searching for the right process to release it. It all comes down to accountability.
“We must adhere to the protocols and teachings of our elders. We need to use those to guide our artistic and business decisions and how we engage with the community and performance,” Tyler says.
Ultimately, nêhiyawak’s goal is to represent and share its own identity while starting a conversation about culture. The upcoming show at 9910 is the perfect outlet.
Cuban punk rockers Adictox and Mexican hard rock band Canibales will also be gracing the stage, giving the audience a chance to absorb the sounds of two fascinating cultures.
“There is an indigenous narrative that we are not alone in,” Tyler says. “People around the world are part of it. So here’s an opportunity for people to hang out and learn.”
Sat., Sept. 30 (9 pm)
Adictox, Canibales, nêhiyawak, and Iron Eyes