Tillicum Shantie Project showcases Indigenous heritage

Q & A with Lil'wat Nation composer Russell Wallace

The Tillicum Shantie Project: Songs Of The People, Granville Island Jazz, Friday, June 21,  Granville Island Public Market, 12 p.m. Free admission. TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival, June 21-July 1. For more information and schedule visit coastaljazz.ca.

Russell Wallace will premiere his Tillicum Shantie Project today at high noon on Granville Island Public Market Stage as part of the opening day of this year’s TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival.
Wallace, the 2019 Coastal Jazz Indigenous Artist in Residence, is a composer, producer, and traditional singer from the Lil’wat Nation. He’s scored music for film, TV, theatre and dance productions across Canada and recently received a Leo Award for Best Musical Score for the documentary series 1491: The Untold History of the Americas Before Columbus.
In Chinook Jargon (the lingua franca of 19th century trade in the Pacific Northwest) the word “Tillicum” means “people” and “Shantie” refers to “song.” The new project explores a multi-cultural “Songs of the People” using traditional Lil’wat songs in a jazz setting.
Wallace has been working with guitarist Tony Wilson to create jazz arrangements of Salish songs for the project which also touches on the contributions of influential Indigenous jazz artists such as Mildred Bailey and Jim Pepper. Wallace and Wilson will perform the material live with a band including André Lachance (bass), Kai Basanta (drums), Dave Say (sax), Michelle Bardach (vocals), and Sam Dabrusin (vocals).
The Lil’wat musician spoke to the North Shore News about his own musical influences and what was involved in the creation of the Tillicum Shantie Project.

North Shore News: How did you get your start in music?

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Russell Wallace: I’ve always loved music. My mom was a traditional singer and she sang all the time so I had exposure to different types of music growing up. I picked up the guitar and learned how to play that and then went to theatre school in the ’80s. Since I played guitar and sang I was able to provide music for some of the student theatre productions and from there developed a career working in theatre and film and dance providing music.


North Shore News: Was your mother (Flora Wallace) a traditional Lil’wat musician?

Russell Wallace: Yes, a traditional Lil’wat singer but she had an amazing ear. If you sang her something she could sing it back to you pretty well exactly the way you sang it. That was one of the amazing things about her voice, it was really adaptable. If she was teaching 12 people she could hear each individual and could figure out who was singing the wrong word or the wrong note. She didn’t have any training in Western music. In Mount Currie when she married my father she ran a lot of the theatre stuff. She got all the kids together in the community and taught them skits. They would perform two or three times a year.


North Shore News: This was all traditional music?

Russell Wallace: The majority of it was. Country music was really popular back then and she’d take popular country music but change the words to adapt to whatever skit they were doing.


North Shore News: What are some distinguishing characteristics of traditional Lil’wat music?

Russell Wallace: Coast Salish have a little bit different way of singing from people up in Lillooet and that area. There’s a certain form to the songs and a lot of times I say if you look at the land that kind of informs how songs are created. On the coast they tend to sing, in terms of pitch, a lot lower in the register and as you move up into the mountains we tend to sing higher. Some songs have a lot of language in them but others have no language. They are just vocables and vocables are basically words in the song that move the song along but don’t have any linguistic meaning.


North Shore News: Is the music you compose out of the Lil’wat tradition?

Russell Wallace: A lot of it is. I learned singing from my mom and a lot those songs kind of inform how I compose music. I’ve learned a lot from Salish teachers like Lee Maracle, who is from Tsleil-Waututh, and Jeannette Armstrong, who’s from up near Penticton – learning about songs and how the music is passed on.


North Shore News: Was traditional music used in certain contexts?

Russell Wallace: Yes, there’s a lot of social music that people in the community know and sing at different events and there’s ritual music that’s only performed at certain times. Events inform what you are able to sing. It also depends on what family you’re from because some songs are owned by certain families. Some songs only one individual is allowed to sing at a certain time. There’s different contexts as to what we sing and when.


North Shore News: How do you combine traditional styles with contemporary genres in your own music?

Russell Wallace: My mom did a lot of improvising in her music. Learning from that I developed something that would fit a scene and then adding the vocal line or the melody and then working instrumentation around that. Most of the time it’s getting voice down and then adding guitar or whatever. Sometimes I come up with a line on the guitar and then thinking, ‘OK, I can fit something on this.’


North Shore News: Do you compose mainly on the guitar?

Russell Wallace: I work on the computer with ProTools. There’s a lot of MIDI instruments in that so I can play on a piano keyboard basically and input notes that way. It’s a different process from playing guitar. Guitar is my first instrument - I find chords and then transfer them to a keyboard.


North Shore News: What’s involved in the Tillicum Shantie Project?

Russell Wallace: I’m working with jazz guitarist Tony Wilson and we’re taking some of the old Lil’wat music that I’ve learned from my mom and we’re doing arrangements for a jazz ensemble. We have three vocalists that’ll be singing in the concert. I’ve composed some music for it as well. Taking jazz chords and jazz structure and adding Lil’wat language as the basis for the song. I’m not fluent in my language so I’m taking phases I know and creating a song from those words. We’re also doing covers of Mildred Bailey and Jim Pepper, who were very influential in the jazz community and who were both Indigenous artists.


North Shore News: Mildred Bailey was one of the featured artists in Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World.

Russell Wallace: She’s fantastic. About seven years ago I wrote amusical based on Mildred Bailey’s life and talked about how she influenced the world of jazz singing. We did a first draft and a presentation with a band at the Firehall. It’s a fun process but it’s a big thing and you need a lot of funding. One day I hope to get to a second draft and start presenting it. Tillicum Shantie is specifically for the jazz festival. Taking Indigenous material and also acknowledging some of the Indigenous people in jazz. Songs of the people, songs from the Lil’wat Nation but also Jim Pepper and Mildred Bailey. We’re paying respects to those artists as well.



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