Tomson Highway came to the arts late. Born in a tent on his father’s trapline in the Barren Lands First Nation, 1,200 kilometres north of Winnipeg, Highway studied music and literature in university, but spent nearly a decade as a social worker in indigenous communities before writing his first play.
But his effect has been dramatic. His early plays, including The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, bridged the gap between the sad-yet-funny slice-of-life world of Canadian drama and his native Cree culture, spirituality, and people; and forged a new movement of Indigenous participation in Canadian arts. The plays presented a community challenged and at times tragic in circumstance, but full of love, humour, and hope for the future—themes that have continued throughout Highway’s life and work.
He has since written over a dozen plays, as well as children’s books and novels, and has received the Order of Canada. Highway’s latest is Songs in the Key of Cree, a cabaret featuring music from five of his plays, accompanied by singer Patricia Cano and saxophonist Marcus Ali. The show comes to Peterborough on May 11—one of only two Canadian dates on this international tour. I spoke to Highway from his hotel room in Prague, where he was preparing the Czech production of the show.
1. Songs in the Key of Cree features songs from three decades of plays. How is the experience of looking back over such a long career?
You know, I didn’t even realize I was capable of writing music until I was almost 40. It came as a surprise. I wrote songs because we needed them in certain shows, and I could never find the money to pay people adequately, so I’d do it myself. Necessity is the mother of invention. And it just kept working.
It’s not for me to say, but they’re obviously of such a quality that they achieved their own life. They’re good enough to be considered professional, recordable, singable, performable. It’s all a very pleasant surprise to look back and realize I’ve written all this stuff that lives on.
Mind you, the reason I am who I am today is because a lot of very kind people put their energies into me. I feel very lucky that I was given a voice and an ability to write beautiful music and an ability to play music. I feel blessed.
2. While you’re best known as a playwright, I’ve read that you think of yourself first as a musician. Is that true?
Yeah that was my first interest. I studied music for many years. I wanted to be a concert pianist, but I come from a place where—forget it! The field is so competitive that you pretty much have to be born in a major city, where the best musical education is available from the age of four or five. I come from a part of the world where nearest school was 700 kilometres away, for heaven’s sake, never mind a piano. Northerners have this additional barrier to leap over, and that’s distance.
But in my heart and in my soul, I still consider myself a musician. But my music now is language. I write. I write human language and I use human language to make music.
3. Speaking of language, the show features songs in English, French, and Cree. Is it different writing in each language? Are there things that are better expressed in any one?
The way I usually express it is, one language comes from above the neck. English is a brilliant language intellectually, but it’s a cerebral language. It’s very serious. French comes from between the neck and the waist: the heart and the stomach. It’s a sensual language. Talk about French wine and cheese and love—love is easier to talk about in French than in English. Even the sounds—love versus l’amour—it has a different feeling on the tongue.
And then Cree comes from below the waist. It comes from the funnest part of the human body, the most ridiculous part, the part that embarrasses the living daylights out of English. English will never admit this, but as you know, it is the most pleasurable part of the human body, and that’s why it’s so funny. The first syllable you utter in Cree, you start laughing; as soon as you switch to English, you stop. It’s quite remarkable.
4. In addition to old songs, the show includes songs from a new work in progress. Could you tell me anything about the new work?
Well it doesn’t have a storyline yet. Usually, musicals are written by three people: the first person writes the text, the second person writes the lyrics, the third person puts the lyrics to music. I do all three, but I do it backwards. I write the music first, and then I insert the lyrics, and then I string the songs together with a plot. I’m just stringing the songs together now, so the new show doesn’t have a name, doesn’t have a plot, it’s just new songs.
It’s kinda like throwing the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle on the table, letting them fall where they may, and then you piece them together by trial and error.
5. Switching gears a bit, we’re currently in the middle of Canada 150, and a slightly odd bout of patriotism. You’ve had a rather unique Canadian experience. What are your thoughts on Canada 150?
Well, I feel very fortunate that I come from a country like Canada. I travel the world; I just crossed three continents this past week. But as much as I love traveling, I’m always glad to get back to Canada. I’m always glad to realize that it’s the best country in the world—it really is! The most comfortable, the safest. A lot of people in Europe and Africa and South America, their dream is to immigrate to Canada.
And in the end, any excuse to get drunk, you know? Let’s put it that way. Why question it?
Tomson Highway performs Songs in the Key of Cree on May 11 at Market Hall, as a fundraiser for Public Energy. Tickets are $40 for general admission, $100 for VIP (more info).
Images courtesy the artists.