Laying the groundwork for an understanding of song

  • Forum
  • 02/26/2018

  • Mathieu-Robert Sauvé
Roxane Campeau lays a floor branches for the "mitchuap" (walking-out) ceremony.

Roxane Campeau lays a floor branches for the "mitchuap" (walking-out) ceremony.

Credit: Antoine Amnotte-Dupuis

In 5 seconds

UdeM doctoral student Roxane Campeau spent several months among the Cree of Chisasibi to uncover some little-known musical practices.

Living in the Cree Nation of Chisasibi in far-northwestern Quebec for eight months, Roxane Campeau learned a lot about traditional music, especially the short songs that parents sing to their children, based on their nicknames. “Often, these songs follow individuals throughout their lives,” explained the Université de Montréal researcher, who is writing about them for her doctoral thesis in ethnomusicology.

Working with local Cree cultural organizations, whose recordings of the songs she consulted, Campeau detected a distinctive form of personalized singing.  “It usually starts with a child’s nickname, the one parents use when rocking their baby," she said. "The song becomes linked with the child, and is revived on special occasions, sometimes into adulthood.”

Mrs. Campeau has analyzed about 90 songs so far. “It's my job as a researcher to describe this vocal practice. I hypothesize that it's something significant for adults and children and links them to the land where they live."

Philosophy, music and … teeth

Campeau is first and foremost a musician (she studied piano in Geneva), but an interest in philosophy led her to start a master’s degree at UdeM under the supervision of Professor Michel Seymour. “I have long been asking myself this question: ‘Why do humans make music?’" she said. "To answer this, you have to study the theories regarding the origins of music and of language. My areas of interest are by nature transdisciplinary."

After attending a seminar given by Nathalie Fernando, a professor of ethnomusicology in the Faculty of Music, the young researcher was inspired to delve further. That’s when she came across a book entitled Essential Songs by a Canadian anthropologist from Alberta named Lynn Whidden. “She draws on research she did among the Cree in 1982. I was touched by what I discovered in the book. In a sense, I wanted to pick up where she left off.”

While pursuing her doctoral studies, Campeau is busy on a number of other projects requiring an ethnological approach. She was part of the team that drafted the Montreal Declaration for a Responsible Development of Artificial Intelligence. She's involved in La musique aux enfants, a children’s music project with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal. And she's helping out with Dent ma région, an oral-health project that promotes dentistry in Quebec's rural and remote regions; she's working with UdeM dentistry professor Elham Emani to see how the program can be adapted to aboriginal communities.

Welcome to Judy’s

It was in 2012 that Campeau first started traveling to Chisasibi, a 16-hour drive north of Montreal on the eastern shore of James Bay. Put up at first in temporary workers' housing, she soon made friends with nearby residents, which led to more permanent lodging in the home of Judy Whashipabano, a mother of three who acts as a consultant for the local Cree school board. It was there that Campeau stayed, on and off, until her data-gathering was completed in 2015.

During her study tours to James Bay, Campeau attended a number of Cree rituals, including the "mictuap" (walking-out) ceremony, which celebrates the first steps of a child at about one year of age. “Everyone gathers around and watches the child, dressed in traditional clothing, go around the tent. The child holds a mock wooden hatchet and pulls a sled. It's a wonderful ceremony."

Campeau hopes her master’s studies will contribute to a better understanding of the Cree peoples and shed some light on the musical practices of Quebec’s more remote indigenous communities.

A song for a trout

The trapper Joseph Rupert, born on Fort George Island, ancestral seat of the Cree people of La Grande River, was known for the songs he wrote and interpreted. In an audio sample collected in 1981 by Alberta anthropologist Lynn Whidden and available online, Rupert sings an ode to the speckled trout. He asks the fish to offer itself to the singer to feed his family. “Everyone in the community knows this song,” said UdeM music researcher Roxane Campeau. “It's about a trout in a well-known little river north of La Grande.”

A video about traditional Cree life that incorporates Rupert's song is now being prepared by UdeM film student Antoine Amyotte-Dupuis as part of his master’s thesis. Prompted by Campeau and funded by the Northern Scientific Training Program of Polar Knowledge Canada, Amyotte-Dupuis the songwriter's descendents. About 20 members of the Ruperts' extended family took part in the adventure.