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‘This Album Is Releasing the Light’

Nuxalk Radio creates the first record in the language, a dozen new songs to mark 10 years on the air.

Katie Hyslop 11 Jul 2024The Tyee

Katie Hyslop is a reporter with The Tyee.

Since 2014 Nuxalk Radio, the community radio station broadcasting out of the Bella Coola Valley for the Nuxalkmc, or Nuxalk people, has been airing Nuxalk and English programming, Nuxalk language lessons and music in English, Nuxalk and other First Nations languages.

The English content is because there are just four fluent Nuxalk speakers left. But also because there was a shortage of available Nuxalk music recordings beyond a few ceremonial songs.

It was Slts’lani, or Banchi Hanuse, one of the four Nuxalk Radio co-founders, who came up with the idea to record Nusximta, the first-ever all-Nuxalk album, which was released last month, for the station’s 10th anniversary. As she writes in the liner notes, “The Nusximta was a crystal ball of sunlight held in a container that qwaxw [raven] freed to provide light to our world.”

“We just wanted to demonstrate that it could be done,” said Qwaxw, another co-founder, the station’s tech manager and host of the weekday afternoon show Yaliwa!

Qwaxw “hardly knew Nuxalk at all” when he started at the station 10 years ago. “Now I’m able to think, at least a little, in the language and complete sentences,” he said.

Not only does the 12-track album provide more songs for Nuxalk Radio’s daily rotation, it offers yet another way for nation members to learn their language.

“The idea is really to get the songs stuck in people’s heads. So even though they might not know what they mean, they’ll still be singing them and speaking the language,” Qwaxw said, “and then to eventually learn what the meanings are behind the songs.”

Featuring Nuxalk performers who range in age from eight-year-olds to Elders, the multi-genre Nusximta album seamlessly transitions from traditional Nuxalk songs to contemporary dance pop, folk, rock, hip-hop and blues music, and back again.

At just 34 minutes, Nusximta is a packed emotional journey from the past to the present, and the optimistic future of the nation.

“Every time I hear the album, I’m in love with a new song,” said Nuskmata, one of over a dozen majority-Nuxalk singers, songwriters and musicians featured on Nusximta, which is available on music streaming services.

‘Would we say that in our language?’

No stranger to songwriting, Nuskmata had written and performed songs in English prior to contributing three songs to Nusximta, which roughly translates to “transformation through light,” a reference to the Nuxalk creation story of the four carpenters and Raven releasing the light.

She knew writing a song in Nuxalk, a language Nuskmata is still learning, would be a “good challenge” for her.

“I wrote in English, and then it was translated for me” by community members, she said. “And then we were guided through how to pronounce the words and then trying to figure out the timing, and then, of course, adding a layer of some kind of emotion on it.”

It wasn’t just a matter of directly translating English lyrics into Nuxalk, however. Because it isn’t just about speaking Nuxalk; it’s about thinking from the Nuxalk perspective, too.

“We had to ask ourselves, ‘Would we say that in our language?’” Nuskmata said.

For example, in “Ista Nts Ali,” one of three songs Nuskmata co-wrote and performs on the album, she used the word “sacred” in her English draft.

“That’s a really impossible word to translate, because you have to talk about the context of the sacredness; it’s not just a word,” Nuskmata said. “It was a whole different way of thinking and relating from our Nuxalk point of view, rather than English.”

Co-written with album producer Milan André Boronell, “Ista Nts Ali” is “about supernatural Nuxalk women,” said Nuskmata, who is a mother and grandmother herself.

With its heavy bass lines, clapping beat and voices raised to the sky, “Ista Nts Ali” is an empowering song for and about Nuxalk women and girls.

An album cover features Indigenous art on a black background, with the words 'Nuxalk Radio' above and 'Nusximta' below.
LISTEN: Nusximta is a packed emotional journey pointing to the optimistic future of the nation.

Nuskmata intentionally focused on their strength, power and beauty, she said, purposefully avoiding words like “missing,” “murdered” and “violence” too often associated with Indigenous women, girls and Two-Spirit people.

A dance track, “Ista Nts Ali” samples part of the chorus of “Nusq’lst Skwanat,” another song on the album Nuskmata sang and co-wrote with other community members in 2009 to commemorate the passing of her dad, Nusq’lst. The song also shares the story of an ancestral village.

“That’s a traditional memorial song, and I recorded that because I wanted people to learn it and to be able to use it,” she said.

And “Ti syut-s alh Siyani,” also co-written with Boronell, is an acoustic guitar lullaby for Nuskmata’s baby granddaughter, first used in ceremony for the infant last fall before recording began.

“When we started, we just thought the album would be on Nuxalk Radio,” Nuskmata said, adding they found out last Christmas it would be available on streaming services. “Once we found out about it, it was very exciting.”

Idle No More on the radio

Qwaxw said the push for a radio station “came from the era of the so-called Idle No More movement,” which started in 2012.

A time of grassroots, Indigenous uprisings across the country under the then Conservative federal government, Idle No More was sparked by First Nations upset with the settler government’s erosion of environmental protections.

“We knew eventually that energy would diminish and go away again,” Qwaxw said of the movement. “We wanted to capture that energy and transform it into something that would last beyond that moment.”

Honouring a past desire by Nuxalk Elders for a Nuxalk-language radio station, Nuxalk Radio launched on 91.1 FM on June 21, 2014, on si7mt, the summer solstice.

The station, which broadcasts out of Q'umk'uts', a Nuxalk village near Bella Coola on B.C.’s central coast, serves to share Nuxalk language and culture, encouraging language learning with the ultimate goal of broadcasting entirely in Nuxalk to an audience that understands.

Despite being a co-founder of the station, Qwaxw waited until the last minute to get involved in the album.

“I wanted to leave space for others who were interested in the community, but there was room for me, so I jumped in,” he said.

Qwaxw sang and co-wrote “Susqwimtmacwaw,” the album’s opening track. His baritone voice relays the story of the four carpenters, central to the Nuxalk creation story, over a hip-hop beat (“Qwaxw” means raven in Nuxalk, named for the bird’s call).

He also wrote and sang “Wa skulhlxsaalhts,” summarizing the nation’s past up to this point, to accompanying alto saxophone, log drums, deer hoofs and antlers — many of which Qwaxw played himself. In total Qwaxw contributed translation, vocals and music to five of Nusximta’s 12 tracks.

“It was interesting slipping things from English into Nuxalk, and trying to keep the meaning we had in our heads and then trying to rhyme,” says Qwaxw in the album’s liner notes. “Laughing and being willing to make mistakes in front of each other and we just kept on singing, singing and singing it over until it sounded right.”

A man with medium-light skin wearing a woven head covering and a burgundy shirt sits in the forest against the trunk of a large tree. He looks pensively into the distance.
Nuxalk Radio host, co-founder and technical manager Qwaxw contributed translation, vocals and music to five of Nusximta’s 12 tracks. ‘We just kept on singing, singing and singing it over until it sounded right.’ Photo by Slts’lani via Nuxalk Radio.

The Nuxalk language is an ancient one, going back at least 14,000 years on Nuxalkulmc, or Nuxalk territory. But thanks to European colonization and Nuxalk children’s forced attendance at English-only residential schools, today there are only four fluent Nuxalk speakers left.

They are “quite elderly,” Qwaxw said, adding they did not contribute to the album’s translation. “We don’t want to bother them with these kinds of things. They’ve done their work for us.”

Instead they relied on younger speakers, including Nuxalk Radio hosts Qwaxw and Tatala, to translate and coach the performers in pronunciation and tone.

The process of translating and singing her songs in Nuxalk provided singer-songwriter Nuskmata with a “deeper understanding of how we would communicate with each other and how we relate with each other in the world, through our language,” she said.

Unlike English, where you can use a lot of words and still be vague in your meaning, Nuxalk is a much more direct language, Nuskmata said. English is an “ownership-based” language, compared with Nuxalk’s basis in relationships, she added.

“It’s made me question how much English has influenced the way we live now and how we relate with each other,” Nuskmata said. “Us being an oral culture, you have to live up to your word, and it has to be very clear.”

‘Our language is still here’

Recording the album over three weeks last fall in a temporary recording studio in Q'umk'uts' by the Bella Coola River, Nuskmata and the other musicians and singers got an education in music production, too.

“It was really neat to see the process come together and be part of mixing of the sounds, and talk with the producer about our ideas, and seeing it come together,” Nuskmata said. “It was like watching a house being built.”

Nuxalk language comes from the land in what’s called the Bella Coola Valley in English.

“Making this album is really important to say our language is still here, it’s important, it’s relevant to who we are, and it adds so much to our understanding of who we are and our homelands,” said Nuskmata.

Nuxalk language comes directly from the land, their Nuxalkulmc, Nuskmata said. The more it’s spoken, the more energy is put into the language.

“It’s like doing work, if that makes sense — our names and our language works on us, as well, because there are teachings built into it,” she said.

Qwaxw has a “deeply emotional response” to the album, even just talking about it.

“Our people have gone through enough pain and tears, and this album is meant to shine a bright light of happiness showing that we’re in a better place now,” he said, “and the path forward is going to be much more clear and happier than what we’ve walked to get here.”

Community members are already talking about making a second album, Nuskmata says, adding there are a lot of Nuxalk musicians who could contribute songs.

“That was kind of the intent of this,” said Qwaxw, adding the album is for future Nuxalk generations to enjoy. “To clear that path and get people interested to make new songs in our language.”

Nuskmata says Nusximta is for everyone to enjoy, regardless of whether they understand the lyrics. She advises non-speakers to pay attention to how the music makes them feel.

But Nuskmata hopes other Indigenous groups both here and around the world will take this album as inspiration to record music in their languages, too.

“I feel like this album is releasing the light, and releasing this whole new energy around our language for people to learn, to enjoy and to hear our language in a different way,” Nuskmata said.

“If it’s a spark for Indigenous languages to be putting out more and more music, I think that’s a really powerful thing.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Indigenous, Music

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