Andrew Callicum will narrate Song of the Salish Chief that will involve local choirs in performances in Campbell River and the Comox Valley.

Two strong choral works address issues of racism and hate speech

Two musical works will be performed in Campbell River to highlight important social issues

Two musical works will be performed in Campbell River to highlight important social issues.

Hands Across the Divide will tackle themes of racism and cultural conflict on Sunday, April 21 at the Campbell River United Church and later in Courtenay.

What happens when a renowned Canadian poet is drawn to confront the Canadian tragedy of first contact between European and Aboriginal cultures?

He writes a radio play in the 1950’s which is unfortunately not well received and it fades into history.

And when, 30 years later, the Vancouver Centennial Committee commissioned a rising young modern composer to write a piece to celebrate the city – he took that radio play as the basis for the lyrics to draw attention to the still unresolved impacts of that contact.

Song of the Salish Chief by Vancouver composer Peter Bjerring, with lyrics by Earle Birney, is the cantata that arose from this unique collaboration.  It conveys the stories of a Salish chief, told to his son, about the time before first contact.  It tells of what has been lost through that experience.

The story is seen through the eyes of a young man, from the time his father was chief, until the time the young man becomes chief. The text will be narrated by Andrew Callicum, a member of the Mowachaht Muchalaht First Nation, currently working in Port Alberni for the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council.

The music and text depict the early journeys of the Salish people, the weaving of baskets by the women, the joys and excitement of a successful hunt, the chief’s first potlatch (a ceremonial feast among first nations of the northwest Pacific coast) and, finally, the sadness of watching his longhouses burn and the tragic demise of his nation.

Bjerring’s music takes the cadences from the rhythms and textures of the old man’s life. As a youth, the chief watches with awe as the newcomers makes “slaves of waterfall, and magic from the souls of rocks,” but he also lives to witness the white man enslaved, in turn, by his own technologies. The chief’s reverie turns to the serenity of his childhood and his people’s traditions.

The text and the music combine to tell a difficult story that that is sometimes hard for the dominant culture to hear.

And yet it is the same story that has been told many times in BC’s history.  Beginning with the Chilcotin War in the Stein Valley in 1864 and including the defence of Athlii Gwaii (mapped as Lyell Island) in the southern Haida Territory in 1985.  Guujaaw, President of the Haida National Council explained the underlying reasons for the occupation and logging blockade of Athlii Gawaii in a 1992 CBC Ideas episode,

“We wanted to make it real clear that our culture is our relationship to the land.  That’s where our songs come from, that’s where our language comes from, and the dances are all about the creatures that we share this land with. And so we brought our songs back to the land to express exactly who we are in relation to the land.”

The spiritual and cultural identity of First Nations are rooted in this relationship to the land in ways that are sometimes hard for western European cultures to understand and comprehend.  This has often resulted in conflict between First Nations and settler culture in BC.

The results of these conflicts often feed and nurture attitudes of racism.  This concert is part of the ongoing process of trying to build bridges across that divide in our understanding.

The work will be presented by the combined voices of Island Voices Chamber Choir and Cantiamo Chamber Ensemble, conducted by Dr. Graeme Langager, professor of conducting and director of choral activities at the UBC Faculty of Music.

The Hands Across the Divide concert will be performed twice.  Opening night is Sunday, April 21 at 7 p.m. in Campbell River United Church.

The second performance is at the Sid Williams Theatre on Monday, April 22 at 7 p.m.

The second work in this concert is a dramatic contrast – it is a classically-based choral work following the traditional catholic mass text.  Missa Pax was composed by another Vancouver composer, Timothy Corlis.

While the text is traditional, the score conveys the strong message that peace between diverse cultures and peoples requires understanding and acceptance of differences… differences that convey the beauty within that diversity.

Composed in 2009, the Missa Pax has already established a strong track record with mid-concert ovations both at the Elora Festival and at the prestigious Festival of the Sound. Reviewer Steven Preece described the piece after its premier as “conjuring of heavenly radiance”, “fantastically cathartic”, and possessing an “emotional authenticity irresistible to the listener.”

Tickets for the concert in Campbell River are available for $15 from Coho Books, the Immigrant Welcome Centre/MISA at 740 Robron, or from the Campbell River United Church office.