I gradually became aware of Tomson Highway’s imminent arrival in Montreal from a joker whose picture graced the cover of one of the city’s alternative newsweeklies. I say joker, because Tomson Highway doesn’t often let an opportunity to get a laugh pass him by. For instance, when I looked at the picture he looked vaguely familiar even though it was hard to figure out why. This is because he purposefully created a distortion in the picture by taking off his glasses and holding them a foot in front of his face to create two bizarre refractions through the lenses.
Highway was in town as the lead artist for Montreal’s Voix d’Ameriques spoken word festival from February 10 to 17. A Northern Manitoba Cree who has published and performed countless times, Highway has received a National Aboriginal Achievement Award (2001), an Order of Canada (1994) and holds many honorary degrees.
His two sold-out performances in Montreal were set in two acts comprised of 10 songs taken from his two plays, The Incredible Adventures of Mary Jane Mosquito and the musical ROSE. The show was called Goddess, Alive or Dead?
Highway, a virtuoso pianist, was joined onstage by actor Patty Cano and by saxophonist Ulrich Kempendorff. Their performances covered a gamut of emotions and were sung in English, French and Cree. Patty Cano’s voice has an incredible range and she can make the walls shake, while Ullrich Kempendorff provided the sublime jazz riffs.
The “cabaret” was constantly drenched with laughter provoked by carefully ad-libbed jokes throughout the performance. The plays with words, language, music, and their enmeshment with the emotions that were given homage to created a whole overall effect of a series of many layers. All these layers and songs also carried storylines that gradually built up to a climax in the second set, but the great part about the whole performance is that all of these forms of communication worked together to emphasize the universal messages as well as the universality of language. There was an almost translucent clarity of languages well used in profound communication that felt quite spiritual.
Although the topics ranged from the agony of belittlement and the angst of suffering trauma on a reservation, the evening mostly had overtones of love and joy. Tomson Highway’s cult status was made evident by the way the thousand or so guests lovingly singing along to the Cree lyrics of “Kisageetin Means I Love You.”
“Tens Times Ten Times Ten” was instructive in the relative laws of love, and another song spoke of the spirituality and mysticism of life that can be found in the unadulterated wisdom of children. Other universal themes perhaps are the desire to travel to Rio when caught in a cold climate, and to be unimpressed by materialism when it is not necessarily under your control. Political jokes involved names like Bush and Mulroney so you might be able to fill in the blanks for yourself.
Of course, there were also jokes that emphasized the laughable side of being human. Along those lines, Tomson played “Let’s Hit The Road Again” for the encore. He joked that he sometimes plays that song at gatherings just as an excuse to get drunk.
It seems Tomson Highway has a knack for schmoozing, and during one of his interviews held entirely in French with a Montreal audience of a hundred, I picked up that he really likes refined tastes, such as the pleasures of having several abodes on two different continents and spending time in Barcelona and the French Riviera. He also likes French cheese and the stinkier, the better.
I think the key to appreciating the Tomson Highway experience is to have a open heart to his joie de vivre. When someone asked about the difficulties that First Nations people face he said he can only answer for himself, but that he asserts that he is happy and that this is the case with many Native people. He said that they should ask more Native people and they will probably say that they are happy too. I gather he implied that the person asking the question did not realize the richness of the First Nations various and rich ways of life.
All in all, as this year’s special guest to the Montreal’s fifth annual Voix d’Ameriques, Thomson Highway lived up to his reputation as one of the greatest Aboriginal writers North America has ever produced.