In just a few short days, winners across the 47 categories at the annual Juno Awards will be announced at the ceremony held at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta. Multiple nominees in the mix have ties to Kahnawake.
Now a four-time Juno nominee and one-time winner, Digging Roots is up for the prize with the album Zhawenim – an Anishinaabe term for unconditional love.
“Part of the sentiment behind Zhawenim was that we have to start working together as people, recognize that we’re all human beings, and start communicating better so that we can fix the world that we’re living in,” said Raven Kanatakta, one half of husband-wife duo Digging Roots, nominated for Contemporary Indigenous Artist or Group of the Year.
The album pulls on the heartstrings as it speaks of the deep wounds from longstanding oppression, assimilation, and genocide inflicted upon Indigenous communities. While learning about the hardships of his ancestors in his youth, Kanatakta found joy and comfort in music. “It became this medicine in my life.”
Music is medicine – mishkiki nigamowin in Anishinaabemowin – stands as one of Digging Roots’ defining philosophies.
To Kanatakta, who is from Kahnawake, music is a vehicle for seeing the good life – a task that requires much effort but is worthwhile. “Having a companion like music, I don’t know if it makes it easier, but it really makes the journey sweeter,” he said. The feeling Digging Roots conveys in their songs is one he found resonates with audiences worldwide, even though they may not speak the language of the song.
On top of referencing the return of one’s roots, traditions, and value systems, the band’s name takes on a literal meaning too – nodding to a life-altering turn of events for Kanatakta.
For seven years, Kanatakta suffered from carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis, causing him a great deal of pain in his hand and arm and ultimately preventing him from playing the guitar. He had consulted about 25 doctors whose recommendations would cure the pain but leave him unable to play an instrument. But he was determined to get better. That’s when he went to see a healer on the reserve of his wife, ShoShona Kish.
Skeptical but hopeful, he went on a medicine walk with the healer and followed his every instruction – Kanatakta was to dig up a handful of plants and make them an offering of tobacco in exchange for taking their spirits and nutrients. The healer then showed him how to make tea from the plants’ roots, which Kanatakta drank twice a day for a week.
After that, Kanatakta was able to strum his guitar; after two weeks, he was able to play every day. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m so excited. This is crazy!’ And then after a month, I was completely back to normal,” he said.
Kanatakta grew up in Winneway, Long Point First Nation, and music runs in his blood. He tethers some of his earliest memories of playing music to his grandfather Walter, who’d often come by with his guitar.
“But when he left, this one time I found the guitar in the bathtub. And I was like, ‘That’s a weird place to put a guitar,’” he said, recalling how he would entice him to strum the guitar by leaving it in odd places around the house. Walter eventually taught him a few chords before Kanatakta immersed himself, learning all he could from musicians across his community.
An early introduction to music can go a long way, and it’s something Kanatakta shares with Gene Diabo, credited in the music of Julian Taylor, also nominated for Contemporary Indigenous Artist or Group of the Year Juno Award.
Diabo and his brother Barry Diabo, who now both work at the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake, have been playing music since they were kids. “Barry always encouraged me to play from the time I was young. We later ended up playing in bands together throughout my adult life,” he said.
Both brothers, cousins to Taylor, are featured in his music – Gene on drums and Barry on the bass.
“It was an exciting whirlwind weekend in December 2021 in Toronto. We recorded eight songs in two days,” Gene said of the album Beyond the Reservoir album. “It was an honour to help Julian achieve what he set out to do with the chapter of his long and storied career in music,” he said, adding that recording at The Woodshed – famed studio of Blue Rodeo – was the cherry on top.
What started off as back-porch jams on powwow weekends eight years ago turned into Julian asking the brothers to collaborate on his albums The Ridge and now Beyond the Reservoir.
“It’s nuts. I would never have expected this, but I’m glad it’s happening for Julian. He’s worked very hard and he deserves it,” said Gene, who aside from his day job does the occasional live gig with local musicians.
The awards ceremony will take place on March 13 at 8 p.m.