A Profile of Thelma Cheechoo

Our song bird from the James Bay region of Canada, Thelma Cheechoo, knows first-hand what it’s like to grow up in a large musical family. “I’m the second youngest of nine children. I was singing by the age 5 and performed onstage for the first time at 18.”

Thelma is a member of the Moose Cree First Nation, but grew up in the bush. She also has a political side; she ran for chief in the recent elections, but lost to four-time chief Ernest Beck.

“I feel very fortunate in the way that my parents raised us. We spent seven months a year of when I was young living out in the bush, but we also spend a lot of time on the road touring our Cree communities as a family performing,” he said.

‘My dad is an accomplished musician and early on he was very supportive and wanted all of us to sing. He and my mother encouraged us to learn to play an instrument. My dad is strict and my mom is easy-going. They really pushed us to get an education but we also worked in the family business over the years, which helped me to develop a good business sense.”

Thelma believes her family’s commitment to their music and to their traditional beliefs is what has kept the family strong. “We bonded through our music, which kept us together. Even now when we are spread out over the country, we keep in touch and support each other in our various careers.”

Music has been the major part of Thelma’s journey in life. “Music and the teachings from my parents were the foundation of our family and I have carried those teachings and values on into my life with my husband and my children,” she said.

Spirituality was also very important to Thelma when she was growing up and she says it has helped to make her the stronger, independent, self-assured woman that she is. “We all have our own special gifts. We are all creative in our own way as we all come from the Creator.”

Thelma’s first CD, titled Pa Ma Sei Win, which means “my life” in Cree, was produced independently and took her a year to finish. “The songs on Pa Ma Sei Win relate to different stages and phases in my life.” All but three of the songs on the CD are her own originals. “I would have liked for all the material to have been original but people, my family in particular wanted me, to record and include these three songs on the CD. So I did it as a tribute to my family, especially my parents.”

Although Thelma grew up involved in performing onstage, she feels that becoming a good performer is a skill that is learned. “I am still learning to perform, which for me is an ongoing learning experience. I like to watch a lot of other artists shows to learn how it’s
done. I love going to other venues and festivals and listening to others perform. I’m a fan too. I like to give my support to up and coming performers,” she said.

Thelma especially enjoys and – actually prefers – performing at small venues because of the interaction that develops with the audience. “I find that audience reaction provides me with encouragement,” she said. Thelma used to be very shy about performing her music, but with the release of her CD and a lot of self-promotion she has developed a maturity and depth in her performances.

“I’m growing with my music. I still get nervous before a show but I’m not shy anymore. I love performing. I feel I have been fortunate to meet a lot of the right people by doing it all of on my own. I have been developing my own style, and with time I feel I will develop a more full sound.”

One of the things Thelma has found hard about becoming a well-known recording artist is getting used to signing autographs. “I had to learn to deal with young people coming up to me after shows and disclosing personal, private things. My responses have been to encourage them to share these things with someone they trust and not to hold it in. I am often surprised by the number of people who want my autograph after a show. It’s another way the Creator keeps me humble.”

Thelma set up her own business called Rena Music in order to develop her own recording label so that she could produce her CD independently. “I did it this way so I could learn from the first step all the way through to the finished product. I learned a lot, and I know what I want and don’t want for my next recording. For example, next time I’ll work with a producer. I also found it tough at times to balance my music with the business side of things. It’s very difficult to produce your own music entirely on your own. I made mistakes that will enable me to make a better product next time.”

Since the release of Pa Ma Sei Win, Thelma has been learning to promote herself, which she has done tirelessly. She also acts as her own booking agent, manager and fundraiser. “All the money goes back into the business side of things to pay for future production projects. So far the money from sales has gone towards enabling me to tour and to getting back in the studio to work on my next recording.”

Although music has been a very large part of Thelma’s life for as long she can remember it is not her only passion. “I work a lot with communities to promote Native and non-Native talent. I also do workshops with youth. I believe that giving back to the community is what it’s all about.”

Thelma has some impressive credits to her name including hosting and doing workshops at the Northern Lights Festival in Sudbury and opening for Blue Rodeo at the 1996 Heritage Festival in North
Bay. She has performed in Canada and the United States at Native and non-Native venues. But her favourite place to perform is back home in the James Bay area. “When I perform at home, I am giving back to my home community who have given me so much support and encouragement. It’s a way from me to thank them. My husband is also very supportive and always tells me not to give up, although sometimes it’s been hard to balance my family and my music. Which is why my family has often accompanied me on my tours.”

Thelma is always busy; she’s an energetic, passionate woman who seems to be constantly on the go. “I love doing what I’m doing. I’m really proud of being a Native performer. Wherever this road takes me, that’s where I’m going. I’m on a good path and music will always be there. Music has kept us strong as a family and I encourage our young people to pursue their dreams and goals, but more importantly, to get an education. Whatever you want to do, pursue it with all you’ve got. Give it your all.”