Writer, Composer and Musician Tomson Highway was born in a snowbank on the Manitoba/Nunavut border to a family of nomadic caribou hunters. He had the great privilege of growing up in two languages: Cree, his mother tongue, and Dene, the language of the neighbouring nation, a people with whom they travelled and hunted.
Hello Tomson, many thanks for talking to TNC, how are you doing?
I am doing fine, thank you. I celebrate my good fortune every hour of every day. That good fortune? My health!
Are you looking forward to your run at Edinburgh Fringe this year?
Yes, I very much am.
Songs in the Key of Cree is part of this year's Indigenous Contemporary Scene how did you get involved in this project?
A professional contact and friend – Patti Shaugnessy of Peterborough, Ontario, Canada – very kindly asked me if I would be interested in participating.
Do you think more art festivals around Europe should provide this type of unique platform for indigenous artists and voices?
Yes, I think the indigenous voice has some very valuable information to share with the world with regards to the environment and mankind’s relationship to it.
This being a compilation of your tunes from the past 3 decades was it easy for you to select the music you wanted to share in the show?
Not really. I have my favourites, as do my audiences.
Can you tell me a little bit about Songs in the Key of Cree, what can we expect?
You can expect two exceptional musicians – a vocalist and saxophonist – to perform twelve songs on a stage in cabaret format. The third musician – the pianist – I can’t really describe as exceptional as that artist happens to be me! But he IS good and he is the composer and lyricist of the songs. The style? His song-writing models are Cole Porter and Kurt Weill, so expect that style of music, the difference being that some of the lyrics – not all but some – are in Cree, the largest and most-spoken Aboriginal language group in Canada today.
"...I first became a playwright before I became – accidentally – a songwriter..."
You are going to be joined by singer Patricia Cano and jazz saxophonist Marcus Ali, what has the experience been like working with these two incredible artists?
Not only have both become electrifying performers over the years, they are great human beings, kind and generous and just plain nice to be with.
When you’re at a festival like Edinburgh Fringe do you change the order of your songs each night or do you like to keep it the same?
I think in this case we’ll change the order and the choice from one night to the next mostly because we now have such a large repertoire to choose from.
What was the first song you wrote?
“Lookin’ for Love,” which I later inserted into a musical called Rose, keeping in mind that I first became a playwright before I became – accidentally – a songwriter, “accidentally” because no one would produce my first shows so I produced them myself and when they started morphing into musicals, I could never afford to pay composers and musicians to create and perform the songs so I did it myself. Necessity, after all – and as they say – is the mother of invention. And I’m glad it is because it has all turned out so well. The cat, indeed – and so to speak – has landed on all fours. If it's not too old a cat, it always does!
Has your style of writing and performing changed much since you first started?
I am not the one to say but people say that it has grown in terms of technique, depth, and sophistication. It also helps that, as a classically-trained pianist, I used to, in my youth, accompany singers of German leider, French chanson, and opera Italian and otherwise, so I came to know that repertoire intimately. What better teachers, after all, can one have than geniuses of song-writing such as Schubert, Schumann, Debussy, Ravel, Faure, Verdi, Bellini, Puccini, Donizetti, etc., etc., etc. It, in other words, has gone way beyond just Porter and Weill.
Where did your passion for creative arts come from?
My father was an accordionist, his father was a legendary fiddler…and I became a pianist. It was a natural progression. Other members of my family have that gift. It’s in our blood.
You are also the librettist for the first Cree language opera The Journey of Pimooteewin, can you tell me a little bit about this, how did it come about?
I was asked, I needed the money, and I know my opera. I have seen about 40 of them over the years, in many of the great opera houses of the world including the Met, Covent Garden, the Vienna Staatsoper, etc.
How important, for a show like this, is the collaborative nature for artists?
Without that collaboration, the songs would never come together; they would never gel. And they thus would have no spirit.
If you could choose three words to describe this play what would they be?
Love, humour, and style.
For any emerging indigenous artists out there do you have any advice you could offer them?
Work hard but have fun. And don’t forget to laugh. Never, ever forget to laugh. You will need it in those down times you will inevitably meet. Everyone meets them, in any and all disciplines. As one of our great Canadian heroes (marathonist Terry Fox) once sagely put it: “it is not supposed to be easy.” And I have always added: “if it were easy, it would probably not be worth doing!”
And finally, what do you hope your Edinburgh audiences will take away from your show?
Laughter, tears, wonder, awe.