Article, Arts & Culture

Russell Wallace on Sharing Knowledge through Song

May 29, 2017

On May 18, the Salish Singing and Drumming Workshop series of Spring 2017 came to a close. The monthly workshops are led each Spring and Fall by award-winning composer, producer, and traditional Lil’wat singer, Russell Wallace. Recently, Wallace was a part of the “powerhouse” ensemble featured in Marie Clements’ musical documentary The Road ForwardThe film “connects a pivotal moment in Canada’s civil rights history — the beginnings of Indian Nationalism in the 1930s — with the powerful momentum of First Nations activism today.” Wallace currently works and teaches at the Native Education College, where he is the Cultural Coordinator.

We asked Wallace a few questions about his passion for sharing Salish music.

How long have you been singing and drumming?

I have been singing for most of my life, ever since I was really young apparently. My mom said I would get up and sing with her at different events. Some of that I don’t remember. I started drumming back in the late 80s to accompany some theatre productions. In the 90s my mom decided we should have a singing group and got us to learn the songs and to work on some arrangements for different voices.

Russell Wallace performing with Tzo’kam and Sawagi Taiko at the C2UExpo Community and Cultural Mash Up on May 3, 2017.

Why did you decide to start teaching Salish singing and drumming?

Well really it was not my decision to become a teacher. My mother said that we must share the songs that she taught us. For her passing on the songs was important because she was not allowed to share them so freely in residential school. Being beaten and humiliated for singing and sharing our songs was a common occurrence. My mom pushed me to teach which was for me a big challenge, but over the years I understood what it meant to share knowledge and encourage other people to sing who might not sing for whatever reasons they might have.

What makes Salish music unique, and what are some of the defining characteristics?

Salish music has a lot of challenging elements such as consonants that are not in the English language and glottal stops. The vocables for many songs are very closely associated with certain communities. Repetition is a big part of the songs but the form of the melody can be seen as a pattern that reminds me of weaving.

What can participants expect to take away from a Salish singing and drumming workshop?

Participants will learn some Salish songs and learn some of the dance from what I have learned. Many of the participants have not sang before and this workshop serves as a basis to find your inner singer and let them out in song with other people.

What has been the highlight of your musical career?

For me, the one thing I remember is collaborating on a choral composition with composer/choral director Hussein Janmohamed for a Peace Conference back in 2004 when the Dali Lama was in town with many members of the international peace community. A youth choir sang the composition and my mom was there to witness it. I know my parents were always proud of me but that moment was something that I will always remember because we were finally able to share our language and music with the world in a good way.

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