Buffy Sainte-Marie, the Canadian Cree folk-music icon and activist, headlines this year’s imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival, a celebration of indigenous culture and talent kicking off in Toronto this week. She spoke to The Globe recently about songs, soldiers and castles made of sand.
You’re closing this year’s imagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival with a concert. What can your audience expect from you?
It’s a mix of things people expect and things that will really surprise people. My audiences usually ask for Up Where We Belong, Until It’s Time for You to Go and Universal Soldier. But we’ll do stuff from our new album, Running for the Drum, which is pow-wow rock, featuring my band. It isn’t new to aboriginal audiences, but maybe it is to other people. It’s really up tempo, with a real power to the words.
Do you think your audience sees Universal Soldier in contemporary terms, or is it a song that connects them to another era?
I think people get it immediately that the song is still relevant. If people discovered me in the sixties, they might look at Universal Soldier as a song that was important to their youth. If they discovered me during my Sesame Street years in the seventies, they may never have heard of the song because it was blacklisted by then.
Certainly, it’s an important song. But it does seem like an odd one to call out as a song request, like it’s a pop hit or something.
Well, most people might not know about Until It’s Time For You to Go, even though they’ve heard it. They probably heard it by Elvis Presley or Barbra Streisand or Neil Diamond or Bobby Darin or somebody.
Likewise, they might not know you wrote Up Where We Belong. They might not know you wrote Universal Soldier, for that matter.
A lot of people think Donovan wrote Universal Soldier. I did a concert with him four or five months ago in London. He only does his own songs, except for two of mine. So it’s easy to see how that confusion would arise.
As long as you get the royalties, right?
[Laughs.] For Universal Soldier I didn’t, because I gave away the publishing for $1 when I first got to Greenwich Village. Ten years later I bought it back for 25 grand. Show business is a tricky ladder.
What do you think of today’s youth activism and their reactions to war?
A lot of people are so dependent upon the corporate reality. We don’t go to college for the same reasons we used to – for a general education and to learn about the world and to gain the skills needed to participate in the world. Now people go to college for a meal ticket, and a place to stand in line of some plantation owner who kind of rules their lives from then on.
Which is a dangerous thing, obviously.
Yes. I think we’re so co-opted by the money interests, who I think have a huge responsibility for war. The average person doesn’t think very much about who’s responsible for war.
Your song Universal Soldier suggests we’re all responsible, right?
It spells that out pretty clearly. It’s a song about individual responsibility for the world we live in. But there’s so much money in war. If somebody’s going to write a new song about the war, have them write about war being such a racket.
Reading your bio, I see descriptions like a “spellbinding performer” and “audacious attitude,” which I think translates to “swagger” today. What kind of adjectives do you prefer when describing yourself?
I don’t know. I just think of myself as very fortunate. I feel as though I’m an overgrown kid. I had the same skills as other kindergarten kids, except as an adult I’ve managed to hold onto them. I think that’s something that resonates with people.
Certainly your old Sesame Street fans would get that.
I have a PhD in fine arts, but I never took any music lessons. I make it up, the same as any kid does. I’ve held onto the same kind of skills that every child uses when you take them to the beach. They use their imaginations. They make castles in the sand. The skills are the natural gifts that the Creator gives us all. The lucky ones become artists, and the very lucky ones get to become professional artists. It’s an incredible privilege.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
The Beat featuring Buffy Sainte-Marie plays Toronto’s Phoenix Concert Theatre on Oct. 22.
A note about imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival
Typically the most hip and with-it of Toronto’s smaller film festivals, imagineNATIVE, which runs from Wednesday to Sunday and showcases indigenous media from Canada and abroad, is increasingly becoming not really a film festival at all, but a pan-media experience.
For instance, an atmospheric audio-only collage by British Columbia writer and performer Janet Rogers, of the Six Nations of the Grand River, will run within a program of experimental short films Thursday. Similarly, Inuk artist Joey Shaw has a soundscape piece as part of another shorts program Saturday focusing specifically on how it feels to straddle native and non-native worlds.
There’s no shortage of regular feature films, including Wednesday’s opening gala film On the Ice, about two friends in an isolated Alaskan town entangled in a deceitful secret. The film won the prize for best first feature at the last Berlin International Film Festival.
Another highlight is the screening Friday and Saturday of the acclaimed Samson & Delilah, about two youths in the isolated Australian outback and which won the Camera D’Or prize at Cannes in 2009, plus a screening of the documentary about the making of the film.
Yet it’s all the gallery installations by indigenous artists, photo exhibits and music by native performers (including Buffy Sainte-Marie performing Saturday at the Phoenix Concert Theatre) than turns imagineNATIVE into more than a festival, but a scene.
See www.imaginenative.org for details, or the program guide available at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, where the films will be shown.
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