Snapshot 1975: The community hall is packed. The drummers have been drumming for hours now, swapping out to mop their brows, or have a drink of water. Towards the front of the room 20 or so Dene men passionately sing and play songs passed down through generations. Songs to dance to. Songs as prayers to the ancestors. Songs that tell the people who they are, where they came from, where they are going. Songs to move a community and unite a nation.
Dene music came into an international focus during the time of the Berger Inquiry. Community gatherings were the backdrop for intense hearings on the proposed Mackenzie Valley pipeline. The people raised their voices like the sound of rolling thunder, and became the first Indigenous nation to stop a multinational resource development project on our land. In a way, the music was the companion to the speeches where people talked about Dene way of life, centralizing the land and water. The people spoke and the music brought it all together.
As Dene from Denendeh (NWT) we have four distinct styles of music that have existed from time immemorial:
DENE LOVE SONGS (Ets’ula) are often sung by women, but sometimes by men, to convey a love or longing for another person—be it a family member or a romantic interest, alive or dead. But they can also tell the story of an event, give thanks to the Creator, or express a deep love for the land, water, animals, and environment—things all central to a Dene existence.
TEA DANCE SONGS (Iliwa) are sung without the drum, but danced in an inward-facing circle. These are among the most ancient songs and are a beautiful expression of unity as everyone in the circle sings and dances together.
HANDGAMES SONGS accompany the stick-gambling games that teams play against one another (originally for fun, but also to gain wealth and supplies to make it through the hard winter).
DRUM DANCE SONGS are by far the most popular style of Dene music, and known across the North. They are filled with strength and resilience, fun and laughter. Attending a drum dance generates a powerful energy and brings people together in a unique way.
Throughout the history of Dene music there have been some standout singers and drummers—people like Joe Tambour, Randy Baillargeon, and Lawrence Manuel. But “stars” in traditional Dene music don’t carry the same weight as in western music because the emphasis is always on the community, not the individual. This is also central to a Dene worldview. It’s the reason why contemporary Dene musicians like Johnny Landry or David Gon write anthemic songs for people to sing along with. The de facto Dene anthem, “Hina Na Ho Hine” (Landry, 1980)—or as it is better known, “Hina-Na-Ho-Ho” —is based on a traditional tea dance song. When Susan Aglukark covered it in 1995 it became an international hit that people all over the world sang. The music and the message resonated across cultural divides. Digawolf’s Juno-nominated record, Yellowstone, is celebrated across this country, and I have personally witnessed how his Tłı̨chǫ lyrics and music based on drum dance songs make people move, dance, and cry.
The common thread in Dene music is that the stories woven into the songs, sung in the language or vocables (musical syllables that don’t necessarily have a referential meaning) are the distilled knowledge of place, people, events, skills and spiritual values. Dene history is embedded in the songs. Dene ways of life and Dene laws are encoded in the songs. Dene worldview is subtly pervasive throughout the whole repertoire of Dene music.
I once read an interesting theory that the sound waves of “traditional” music reflect the shape of the environment in which they are created. As does the connection with the drum—the first heartbeat of the people, what we hear in our mother’s womb—being so important in almost any Indigenous society.
Elders have always said to be kind and treat one another with love and respect, to work hard and to respect the land. These lessons are in the Dene laws. Dene music is rooted in these values and beliefs, too. This is the song that resonates throughout Denendeh—the song that we should all be listening to.