Below the Radar Transcript

Episode 107: Keeping Culture Alive Through Song — with Russell Wallace

Speakers: Kathy Feng, Am Johal, Russell Wallace 


​​Kathy Feng  0:06  
Hello listeners. I'm Kathy Fang with Below the Radar, a knowledge democracy podcast. Below the Radar is recorded on the territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. This time on Below the Radar your host Am Johal is joined by Russell Wallace, a composer, producer and traditional Líl'wat singer. They discuss Russell's lifelong journey with music from his collaborations with his family as performance group Tzo’Kam, to award winning composing for film, television and theater. I hope you enjoy the Episode.


Am Johal  0:44  
Hi, there, welcome to Below the Radar. We're really excited to have a friend of our office Russell Wallace with us today. He's worked with us for many, many years at SFU. Welcome, Russell.

Russell Wallace  0:58  
Thanks Am. Yeah, it's good to be here. 

Am Johal  1:01  
Wondering if you can begin by introducing yourself a little bit. You've been in Vancouver doing work for a long time, and you've collaborated with so many different artists over the years. And I'm wondering if you can share a little bit of your story?

Russell Wallace  1:16  
Yeah, so my parents are from Haslip and Mount Currie, which are both Stl'atl'imx  speaking communities. And they moved around a lot. You know, with my family I have, there were 11 of us siblings all together, and they finally settled in Vancouver when I was about four years old. So I grew up in East Van up in Mount Pleasant, near Main Street there and Main and 18th. And yeah, so I always loved music and I always, you know, sang with my mom. My mom was a traditional singer and held on to a lot of the traditional songs. And she would sing them all the time, you know, when she was doing dishes or you know, working in the garden. She'd be singing those and she taught us all these songs and, and a lot of community events, she made us sing with her and and share the songs. 

Am Johal  2:13  
How old were you when you started singing Russell?

Russell Wallace  2:15  
I must have been about four or five. My mom said I would get up and sing with her when I was really young. I don't quite remember that though. But yeah, so I must have been like three or four. And yeah, I sang with her a lot. And I learned a lot from her. 

Am Johal  2:32  
And as you got older into your teenage years, were you performing publicly at that point, or your musical interests had gone in different directions, and you returned back to the music you were singing when you were younger? How did your own personal music evolution happen?

Russell Wallace  2:51  
Well, my voice changed. [laughs] And that really, yeah, I became a really reclusive teenager, I guess. And, you know, I used to be able to sing really high notes. And when I couldn't sing those, I just stopped singing. I thought, Oh, I lost my voice. I can't sing anymore. So for about, you know, four or five years I didn't sing at all. I mean, once in a while [laughs] when, when my mom forced me. But yeah, I didn't, I didn't sing for a while. And it wasn't until I was in a theater class. And we had a voice class. Ralph Cole was a guest teacher. And he was with a group called The Nylons, which was a Canadian vocal group. And he kept, you know, he asked me, "Well, why are you trying to sing those high notes? Your bass, you have to sing down here." And he showed me, like, that was a realization. I was like, Oh, actually, I could still sing.

Russell Wallace  3:45  
I had to work that muscle again. But that really opened up my eyes. And, you know, I was like, okay, I can still sing. I just can't sing those high notes like my mom did, or, you know, like I did when I was seven or eight or so yeah, it brought me back to singing. And later in the 90s my mom really wanted to form, you know, a really professional performance group singing our songs. So she got our family together, and we started Tzo’Kam, which is our family singing group. And so we performed a lot at different festivals like the Vancouver Folk Festival and Folk Life in Washington, DC and across Canada. So, you know, we put out a couple of CDs under Tzo’Kam. A lot of them are traditional songs that we arranged with harmonies and such and some of them are songs that my mom composed and some are songs that I composed. So it's kind of taking that tradition and bringing it forward a bit.

Am Johal  4:44  
When you're doing your singing and drumming workshops that I've attended, you often talk about the stories behind the song, families, the kind of permissions that are given for the songs, it's a form of copyright in a way that comes from a different tradition. I'm wondering if you can speak a little bit about that and the complexity of family stories of who gets to sing, what songs and the context behind how they're shared?

Russell Wallace  5:00  
Yeah, so I mean, I've learned this from from my mom, but also learned from Jeannette Armstrong, who's from Penticton, and heads up the, the school up there, the En'owkin Centre, and also from Sadie Buck from six nations, so like, three different nations and three different women, you know, and so, like, I've learned that, you know, we have, we have our own processes, we have our own copyright. And so like, it starts with the individual. So if I write a song, you know, that song can only be sung by me, unless I choose to share it with the community, or share it with the family or whatever. So yeah, you know, it becomes the copyright of me. But if I share with the community, it means anybody can sing it. And then we have, you know, family songs, or clan songs. And so these are songs that are, you know, to be sung only by the family and, or the clan that they're associated with, unless the family or clan chooses to share those songs with the broader community. And then we have community songs. So these are songs that are, you know, in the community that everybody sings all the time, at different events, but the thing is, it's kind of restricted to the community it belongs to. And so, you know, I'm from Mount Currie, I could sing a Mount Currie song, but if we choose to share that song with another community, or you know, make it into tribal, we can do that as well. And so, you know, there's a lot of songs from Mount Currie that are across Canada, because well, one reason was from the Constitution Express that happened back in the early 80s. And so a lot of people from, you know, Mount Currie and St'át'imc Nation traveled across and shared a lot of the songs. And so a lot of these songs are sung in communities far East.

Russell Wallace  5:25  
And then we have ritual songs, which is another level, which are songs that are only sung, you know, in a ritual or ceremony setting. So, you know, we can't sing it outside of that context. So those are like the four levels of copyright that I've learned.

Am Johal  7:22
Now with your family group Tzo’Kam, you've collaborated and you've performed at The Heart of The City Festival with Sawagi Taiko an all women's Taiko group based in Vancouver that's been going for a long time, 30/40 years, probably something like that. I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about that collaborative process of how you got together to perform? Because it's just so wonderful. We keep having people ask when it's coming back, and everything. So you're, you're both very popular groups. But together, it's definitely, it packs an extra punch.

Russell Wallace  7:57
Yeah. You know, it all began by meeting Linda Hoffman. And this was through Diane Kadota. Like I approached Diane one day and said, I want to do a collaborative thing with you know, different drum and vocal cultural histories, singing histories. So Diane, you know, gave me the contact for Linda, who I had known like had worked with Qatari taiko, and a lot of the Taiko groups in the late 70s and stuff. And so she's an elder in the Taiko community. So we collaborated on this project back in 2007. And this was through Full Circle, a Talking Stick Festival at that time. And so I, you know, I collaborated with Linda Hoffman, Nathan, from UBC, I'm really bad with remembering names sometimes. So sorry, Nathan.

Russell Wallace  8:52  
And Hussain John Mohammed and Beverly Dobrinsky. And so we all had these different things that we brought to the workshop and created a performance at the end of the evening. But you know, speaking with Linda, like, there were a lot of parallels in our communities. And so we thought, well, maybe this would be cool if we can investigate these links more. And so, you know, we collaborated, first of all with Qatari Tyco and then later on with Sawagi. And so we've kept that connection, Linda and I and, you know, even to the point where we're making plans on developing a drum opera based on you know, Taiko drums and First Nations singing so because of the collaboration we did for Heart of The City, and Powell Street Festival, Sawagi and soak them. I mean, the collaboration was really, I mean, easy in terms of like, we didn't have to get a hammer and pound our music into their ears or anything. It just, you know, they played a song and you know, the rhythms at their play reminded me of a certain song, so I'd sing over top of their drum playing. So like we're, I guess

Russell Wallace  10:00 
You could call it like a cultural mashup, like, you know, mash up of traditional music together and it worked out really well. And so, over the years, we've performed it a number of times, and it is something we look forward to because it is so dynamic. And so I guess empowering because like, I feel so empowered by the end of it, like all the drums, all the singing, it's like..

Am Johal  10:23  
And you've collaborated over a number of years, you called Linda an elder in the Taiko community but man her arms are super ripped. Right? [Russell laughs] She's very fit with all of that Taiko drumming. But how would you characterize in terms of the collaborative process, when you met, you began rehearsing together, performing? How has that evolved over the years because you don't get to play all the time together. It's complex, bringing large groups together living in different cities and those types of things. But from the time that you first performed to the way you perform now, how would you describe some of that evolution in terms of the creative process?

Russell Wallace  10:59  
With Sawagi? 

Am Johal  11:00  
With Sawagi, yeah. 

Russell Wallace  11:01  
Yeah, I guess it evolved, like because the first time we collaborated together was in 2009. And I think at that time, we had a lot more time, dedicated to rehearsing and improvising, generating ideas. So, you know, they would play songs, and you know, we'd try something and then like, it's like, okay, well, it's gonna be really hard to adapt. And so like, Okay, well, how about we'll try this other song. And, you know, it was a workshop, like, we kind of work together and, you know, pounded out a few things. And, but yeah, since then, it's like, you know, we perform very similar things, like, I guess you'd call them the greatest hits, you know, because they've worked so well together, and we perform them, you know, every time we perform together, but we also feel, we have to generate new ideas, or, you know, to make it fresh. And so we do sit down and say, Okay, well, I have an idea about maybe incorporating this song, like, or, you know, let's write a song together, or, you know, we trust each other a lot. And so that's a really good thing. But I mean, it's a very important thing too in any collaboration is trust, if you don't trust what the other people are going to bring, or do, then, you know, that really puts a hamper on the collaborative process. So trust and respect, you know, we respect each other's work a lot. And that really, you know, shows when we, you know, when we're in rehearsals, like okay, well they have a certain process, we have a certain process, and sometimes we combine them together. But other times, it's okay, like, you know, they'll do their thing, we'll do our thing. And so yeah, trust and respect are really important to any, I guess any relationship.

Am Johal  12:43 
Now, you've collaborated with so many artists, other musicians, people coming from different artistic fields, wondering if you can talk a little bit about, you know, different collaborations you've done historically, like you've done composition for some films, I imagine other pieces since the 90s, probably and, and wonder if you can talk a little bit about other collaborations you've been involved with over the years?

Russell Wallace  13:08  
Umm, I'm getting so old, I'm forgetting a lot of things. Yeah. So, you know, a lot of it kind of stems out of theater. Like when I went to theater, school, and theater, it's very collaborative, you know, the actors are working together with, you know, the stage crew, with the director, with the writer of the play, like we have to collaborate and work on it together. So that's where I learned, you know, how to be more community, collectively oriented, in collaborative works. And from there, like I've developed relationships with people, like with Danna Claxton, like she's a filmmaker. And so, we went to spirit song together, and she knew that I did music, and she'd say, Well, do you have anything? I have this piece, you know, show me what you got. And basically, I send her a bunch of tracks, and she goes, Oh, I like this one. And so she takes it. And that has happened for a number of films, you know, especially in the 90s, when she was doing short film work. So it became a collaboration in a way that, you know, she's working on something and knew, like we'd talk to each other. And I guess that the other thing is communication. I understood what she was saying. It's like, oh, this is about a shirt and it's a white shirt. And like, Okay, that sounds cool. Okay, that here's something or,

Russell Wallace  14:27  
You know, she did a piece recently about ironworkers. So, but yeah, she gives me little hints on what she likes. And so like, Okay, I take all that information and either compose a new piece or find something that's very similar in that vein. So yeah, and Loretta Todd is another filmmaker who I've collaborated with a number of times, and yeah, again, it comes down to communication and developing that relationship. And, you know, I've worked with other, you know, choreographers and directors and sometimes the communication was a little different, or you know, not what I expected and that's, you know, we're human beings, we communicate differently and, and so a lot of times you know, they result in one time [laughs]

Russell Wallace  15:11  
I was gonna say one night stands but that doesn't sound very proper. [Am laughs]

Russell Wallace  15:16  
But you know, like a one time deal or whatever and, and that's cool too is like you find what works for you as an artist, what you can feel comfortable with and you know, sometimes it develops into a longer term, collaborative thing like working with Rosa John at the Kehewin Native Dance Theatre, I've been working with them for over 30 years now. So like, it's Rosa John, and I, one of those collaborations where it's instant, like we can write a song within, you know, three minutes, basically, because it's just that communication, that openness, that willingness to improvise, and not really care if you make mistakes or anything, it's just like, we are that comfortable with each other. 

Am Johal  16:02  
Have you done international collaborations before? 

Am Johal  16:05  
International Hmm.

Russell Wallace  16:08  
Well, with the Mexican choreographer at the Bounce Center, so yeah. And she brought a bunch of music from Mexico from traditional people down there. And this is, you know, what we do. You know, can you create something for me that's similar? And so yeah, it's, but again, the other was language differences and time constraints. So like, I didn't feel I did a very good job in that collaboration, I guess. But yeah, time was a thing. Language is a thing. 

Am Johal  16:39  
Yeah. Yeah. I'm wondering about some of the projects you're working on now, including collaborations. I know you've been doing some recording the last couple of weeks and things like that. What are you up to right now in terms of collaborative projects? 

Russell Wallace  16:52  
Well, I just finished a project with Ruby Singh and it was a vocal project. And so that was a really fun, fun thing to do. And there was Hussain John Mohammed, who was part of it. And John Pemberton, Tiffany, Moses, and another Tiffany, I don't remember her last name. So there were a number of us and we just improvised with loopers and things. So that was, that was another different process for me, like as a singer, like I'm used to, well not used to, but I feel comfortable belting.

Russell Wallace  17:28  
Belting out a song. But when you have a mic and a looper, it's like, you have to be like, you're really close to the mic and so you can't really scream into it. And so yeah, I found that a different process, but like, I learned from that, and, you know, it's like, okay, well, loopers are kind of fun. Maybe I'll buy one and just play around with it.

Russell Wallace  17:49
What else? I'm working on a meditation CD, with the southern stallion health authority, and they're gonna put out a CD of meditation based on First Nations, systems of belief and text and language. And so I provided some of the some of the more ambient pieces. So that was an interesting project to work on. 

Am Johal  18:14  
Have you done any film related composition in the last few years? 

Russell Wallace  18:18  
Yeah, so I provided the soundtrack for a miniseries called 1491. Yeah, that was broadcast on APTN and other networks across the world. And it was basically about life in the Americas before Columbus. And so it looked at different parts of America like South America, Central America and North America. It told those stories. So yeah, that was a huge project, actually. And actually, I, I'm going to blow my own horn here, received a Leo award for the soundtrack. So that's something that I feel proud of, and like, oh, some recognition. Yay.

Russell Wallace  19:01  
But yeah, Monkey Beach just came out. And so I collaborated with Jesse Zubat on the soundtrack for that. And it's out in the film festival circuit right now. 

Am Johal  19:12
Were you involved with some of the music with The Road Forward documentary with Marie Clemens? 

Russell Wallace  19:17  
Yeah, so yeah, I was one of the original composers for that. So the original pieces that were there are still on the film, but primarily, I was a singer for that and contributed to the film that way. 

Am Johal  19:32  
Yeah. I'm wondering in terms of Indigenous composers that you're listening to that you think are doing really interesting work in terms of the younger generation, who are you listening to or who have you interacted with that you're really inspired by by their work? 

Russell Wallace  19:47  
Yeah, there's a number of them that are really cool and Raven Chacon. I know he's like a big star in the Indigenous composition community. There's vie Eli who's done some work with Vancouver New Music. Ed Zu, Jeanine Island is another one that I really like. Elliott Britton out in Toronto is pretty cool. But yeah, like, you know, even more my peer group, I guess my age.

Russell Wallace  20:17  
I don't want to out them as my age group. But you know, Sandy Schofield, who is actually an SFU alumni, I believe, and yeah, there's, there's quite a few out there. And, again, my memory is so bad. So if I miss, if I miss somebody, I apologize. It's my age. [laughs]

Am Johal  20:35 
In terms of the things that you'd like to try out, or experiment with, in the future, what are some projects that you have thought about doing but haven't had a chance to realize yet? 

Russell Wallace  20:47  
Wow, I have so many ideas. [both laugh]

Am Johal  20:52  
We all do.

Russell Wallace  20:54  
I think I've spent the last six months thinking about ideas and actually not really taking much action on them, which is unfortunate. And, and, you know, I think it is due to the pandemic. I mean, it's really, it is scary. It's like I, you know, I feel for all the people who are, you know, losing loved ones to the pandemic, and, you know, I don't want to lose any of my family. So I'm really, and you know, I, I know my own health. So I know, I'd be really in a bad condition if I got it. But yeah, like, I want to make film, I want to write, I want to write a novel, I want to write, you know, graphic novels. I want to, I want to act again. [laughs] But in terms of music, I guess, you know, I do want to finish, well, I mean, we barely started but like this collaboration with Linda Hoffman on a drum opera, like it's such a, you know, a really cool idea. We have a basic storyline. And, you know, we're talking with Hitomi go toe on, maybe we're providing a libretto and a storyline. So, yeah, a lot of different things that I wish I could do. If money was no object, and if we could actually sit in the studio together and work on stuff, but that part of this online collaborative thing is a bit of a challenge for me. And, you know, I do admit it, I'm, you know, I feel like I'm old and technology is passing me by, but like, you know, when I worked in theater, and well, yeah, I can't even, you know, teach the singing group. Because of this, I don't feel comfortable teaching singing this way, you know, because, for me, a big part of the singing together is being together and, you know, being a part of everybody's breath in that room. And, you know, getting a sense that our heartbeats are beating together, which, you know, occasionally happens when you sing in a large group, it's like, everybody becomes really in sync with each other. And that's such a magical thing when it happens. And so, but I mean, also, empathy, like, you know, sometimes I feel people are resistant to some of the work and you know, they're not coming out and saying that, but I can see that in their body language or how they're breathing and like, Okay, well, I'll back off this one thing and try something different. And so it's just, you know, that type of communication, it's hard to convey on Zoom. 

Am Johal  23:20  
I agree that what you said is very similar to what Vanessa Richards said, related to her singing group, that was that Woodward's and they were meeting in other places, but it's been really hard to do over zoom. So they've put it on hiatus for the time being, but she is dancing in the dark with Spotify things and headphones with groups of people in a socially distanced way. But not so secret, because I just said it on the podcast. That's happening in Mount Pleasant. Occasionally, you have to get in touch with her directly. 

Russell Wallace  23:50  

Am Johal  23:52
Russell, would you be willing to sing us a song in this context? I realize it is being recorded over zoom. But in any event, is there a song you'd be willing to share?

Russell Wallace  24:04  
Yeah, this is a song I worked with Hussein on just the past week. We also did something for the Ontario Association of art galleries. They have their 50th anniversary, I guess, recently, and they asked us to collaborate. And so we did a zoom collaboration. And I mean, I find it's a song. It was a song written for springtime, but I think it's applicable now. Because it's like, There's a song called Moon of Open Hands. And basically, that's referring to the Salish Moon of when, you know, March, April, when all the buds are coming out and the blossoms are coming out. And so I feel, you know, we're at a time when, yeah, we're isolating. We're, you know, closing things down and soon, hopefully, hopefully, soon, you know, we'll be able to come out again and you know, the cycle of darkness, the cycle of isolation will be over and we can bloom and blossom again. I know that's really flowery language but yeah so this is Moon of Open Hands.

[Russell Sings]

Am Johal  26:21  
Wow, that was beautiful. Thank you so much for joining us on Below the Radar Russell. 

Russell Wallace  26:27  
Well thanks for having me.


Kathy Feng  26:35  
Below the Radar is a knowledge democracy podcast created by SFU's Vancity Office of Community Engagement. This has been our conversation with our talented friend and community partner Russell Wallace. Visit the links in the show notes to learn more about his work.


Transcript auto-generated by and edited by the Below the Radar team.
February 27, 2021

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