a question of identity
I was nine years old when I first became aware of “identity” as a concept. I remember the circumstances to this day. I was in bed one night while my parents stayed up, playing some records on the Heathkit hi-fi that my father had recently assembled from a kit. I was on the verge of falling asleep when this wondrous voice came drifting up the stairs and into my room, a voice rich and thick and filled with strange inflections. It quavered and hung in the night air, summoning up strange and unexplored worlds. It was the first time I recall being affected by music in any way.
The next morning at breakfast I asked my father who the woman was that was singing. He told me she was a singer named Buffy Sainte-Marie and showed me the record, Many a Mile. To my young eyes, even the cover seemed exotic, showing a beautiful, black haired woman, her face only partially lit, staring wistfully into space.
I devoured the album notes and learned that Sainte-Marie was a Canadian Cree who had been adopted and raised by an American family. This was a revelation to me. Here was a Native American/Canadian woman who wrote her own songs, played guitar well and sang with incredible power. Even as a young boy, I knew this was rare and unusual.
What struck me the most though, even as I began to ponder the notion of identity, was how complex and fluid it was. The song that first caught my ear, Los Pescadores, had been written in Portugal, while the singer watched the fishermen hauls their nets in. There were several British Child ballads, Irish and American folk songs, an American blues and a handful of originals, including Los Pescadores. She was clearly proud of her identity as an Indian (there were no First Nations in those days), but just as clearly felt no need to be bound to that identity in her music.None of the songs on Many a Mile dealt directly with her Native heritage, but I soon got hold of her first album where there were several songs that did, including the heart-wrenching Now That the Buffalo’s Gone. It was clear that she refused to be put in a box, and that as a songwriter had wind-ranging influences and interests.
What I have learned, over the years, starting with my discovery of Buffy Sainte-Marie, was that while identity is often inherited, it can also be shaped and molded, even thrown out and remade. There are always those that will try to impose an identity on us based on appearance or heredity, yet as individuals, we owe it to ourselves to question the expectations thrust upon us, and to not climb too readily into our own boxes.
I was fortunate, years after first coming under her spell, to tour across Canada with Buffy Sainte-Marie. I tried to get across to her what she meant to me all those years ago, but I’m sure I just came across as inarticulate and tongue-tied. Still, it was a special experience for me, especially as I was looking to forge my own identity as a young taiko player at the time.
My musical heroes have come and gone over the years, but I still scroll down to the Buffy Sainte-Marie playlist on my i-pod now and then and drift back to my younger days when my own identity was laying before me, ready to be shaped.
This month’s cover story looks at the issue of identity through a new work by Yayoi Dance Theatre. I was honoured to be asked by Yayoi Hirano to share my own thoughts on identity over several sessions and it brought back to me how hard it can be to articulate, particularly in this pluralistic society that we, as Canadians, are so fortunate to live in.
Producing The Bulletin every month is often a solitary task, with long hours spent at the computer, communicating with others through e-mail for the most part. I look forward, then, to Bulletin mailout day, when our crew of loyal volunteers gathers at the Nikkei Centre to stuff the magazines into mailbags for distribution across Canada. It is always one of the highlights of my month as we share laughs and stories. I was shocked and saddened, then, to get the news that longtime volunteer Lillian Yoshihara had passed away suddenly, only weeks after the March mailout and on her and George’s 50th wedding anniversary. It reminds me of the fragility of life and how tenuous our connections sometimes are. On behalf of everyone at The Bulletin, deepest condolences to Lillian’s family. She was a bright spark and I shall miss the laughter we shared together.
I was saddened too, to learn of the passing of Misao Fujiwara. I interviewed Misao and her husband Wes early on in my tenure as Bulletin editor and I still remember it as one of the most remarkable interviews I ever conducted as they talked about their early days as young doctors who were there at the birth of socialized medicine in Canada. With the passing first of Wes and now Misao, we have lost two Nikkei pioneers who contributed much to their country and their community.