Workshop shares Coast Salish song and drumming

Russell Wallace and company sing and play hand drums. | Photo courtesy of SFU Woodward’s

Russell Wallace and company sing and play hand drums. | Photo courtesy of SFU Woodward’s

For the past year and a half, SFU Woodward’s Goldcorp Centre for the Arts has been the site of Coast Salish singing and drumming workshops. The workshops, which are free and open to the public, invite participants to experience and share First Nations music in an accessible community space.

Originally held at SFU’s Burnaby campus, SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement and Office of Aboriginal Peoples collaborated to present the workshops downtown, starting Sept. 2012.

“The Office of Aboriginal Peoples wanted to bring this event to the Downtown campus in order to connect with the Downtown Eastside and First Nations peoples in the downtown area,” says Am Johal, director of community engagement at SFU Woodward’s Cultural Unit.

Songs for the community

Russell Wallace performing at the Dragon Boat Festival in Vancouver. | Photo courtesy of Russell Wallace

Russell Wallace performing at the Dragon Boat Festival in Vancouver. | Photo courtesy of Russell Wallace

Russell Wallace, a composer, producer and traditional Lil’wat singer, instructs each workshop and introduces the participants to an array of physical and vocal activities including breathing and rhythm exercises, call-and-response songs and playful dances like the crow dance where participants are invited to imitate the movements of a curious, intelligent crow.

“People find different things that they enjoy in the workshop,” says Wallace.

The songs that Wallace teaches are referred to as social songs, which are meant to be shared and can be sung by the community, unlike private or ceremonial songs. He includes children songs, working songs, and narrative songs, some of which are accompanied with the rhythm of stomping and clapping, others with a hand drum and rattles.

Wallace hopes that in sharing these songs, participants will gain an appreciation for the diversity of Aboriginal music.

“A lot of people have no idea about Aboriginal culture and think that all the music is the same, but there are many Aboriginal nations,” says Wallace. The songs of one community may vary greatly from another and he illustrates this diversity by teaching songs from several First Nations communities.

The history of a song

With each song that he teaches, Wallace provides significant historical context as to how these songs circulate and the role they play in Aboriginal communities in the past and the present.

“He is so knowledgeable about the language and history of First Nations culture, singing and dancing, and the songs that are shared within families,” says

For Wallace, it is important to achieve a balance between sharing First Nations music and communicating the history and philosophies behind it. He points out that one can sing a song without knowing where it comes from.

“For some, [the workshop] is a bit of an introduction to Aboriginal language and history. I want to provide as much information as possible so people understand why we sing,” says Wallace. “If there is a question, I try to answer it.”

According to Johal, Wallace’s instruction allows participants to gain a deeper understanding of the richness of the cultures that existed before colonization.

While the event facilitates greater awareness and knowledge of First Nations history and culture, Johal also believes it is an opportunity for attendees to learn from one another and engage with their community.

He points out that there are many attendees from the Downtown Eastside, and because it is drop-in, each session is unique with persons from varying cultural and socio-economic backgrounds.

“We need ways for different groups of people to come together and share an experience. This allows for a collective exploration of memory and history,” says Johal.


This season’s final Coast Salish singing and drumming workshop will be held on April 28, 7–9 p.m. at Djavad Mowafaghian World Art Centre, Goldcorp Centre for the Arts. The workshops will resume September 2014.