If any of you have seen the documentary Searching for Sugar Man, you’ll know the magic of the story that follows.
Sixto Diaz Rodriguez, known professionally as Rodriguez (born July 10, 1942), an American singer-songwriter from Detroit, Michigan, found minor success in the Detroit music scene, where he got to record a couple of albums. His initial career, however, proved short in the United States, but unbeknownst to him, a traveler brought an LP of Rodriguez’s debut 1970 album Cold Fact with him to South Africa.
The album became a cultural phenomenon with bootlegs being pressed and sold in numbers that rivalled Elvis Presley in South Africa. Rumoured dead, a couple of record enthusiasts set out to find out about the life of the American musician behind the anthem for an entire South African generation. Discovered, very much alive and living in obscurity as a janitor, Rodriguez who had once played Detroit clubs, now found himself playing his 30-year-old songs in front of an entire stadium of people who all intimately knew his lyrics and sang along with him.
Enter Willie Thrasher. An Inuk musician, born in Aklavik Northwest Territories in 1948, Willie’s early life was a traditional one. Living up north with his family, they lived off the land and felt connected to the water, the earth and the food they ate. But at the age of five, that life abruptly ended when he, like so many other Indigenous Peoples in Canada, was forced in to residential school. There, his traditional way of life was systematically wiped from his memory. Life was now chaotic and filled with violence and fear.
So young Willie sought escape in music. One day he discovered an old drum set in the gymnasium and began to play. Soon he was playing everyday, beating out his frustrations on the old kit. By the early 1960s he found himself the drummer in a band called the Cordells. Together, the band toured the north playing popular covers of bands like the Rolling Stones and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Then one night in a tavern, a man approached the group and asked why they were playing covers songs when they could be playing traditional music, inspired by their own Indigenous culture.
This idea struck Willie, but he didn’t know what that culture was anymore. Over the next few years, as the 1960s and 70s ushered in a new appreciation and revitalized interest in First Nations culture in North America, Willie began to tour the country and to rediscover his roots and culture. Soon he had an album’s worth of songs and in 1981 recorded his first album Spirit Child for CBC.
He struggled with addiction and tragedy, but has come out the other side and has been sober for over a decade. In 2013, Canadian record producer and musicologist Kevin Howes began the work of putting together a compilation record for Light In The Attic Records, the same label that re-issued Rodriguez’s music. Native North America Vol. 1 would become a masterpiece in ethnographic archivism and discovery, featuring 23 First Nation musicians and groups that recorded between the 1960s and 1980s. NNA Vol 1 would be nominated for a 2015 Grammy. Willie has three songs on the compilation.
Now, together with his singing partner Linda Saddleback he continues to record new music and tour the world.
Willie and Linda’s performance on Thursday, May 31 at 8:30 p.m. closes the two-day Indigenous Arts and Activism series at the Civic Theatre. Don’t miss the opportunity to see Meet Beau Dick: Maker of Monsters on Wednesday, May 30 at 7:30 p.m. and Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World w/ Recording Willie Thrasher (a short documentary on Thrasher by Nelson’s own Adam O. Thomas) on May 31 at 5 p.m. For more details visit civictheatre.ca
Jason Asbell is the Theatre Manager/Programmer for the Nelson Civic Theatre Society