The Drum Has a Heartbeat: Raymond Sewell on the Power of Indigenous Music

Memories of sing-alongs

Circling my parents’ and siblings’ ankles, in a bungalow on the reservation, my fondest memories are of sing-alongs. I remember the old Yamaha guitar would play country and rock, etc…

Around my childhood home, you will find many old guitars in various states of playability. They were always accessible to my siblings and me. Some sit with re-glued headstocks, some sit with warped necks. The type of action that would hurt your fingers. There are various Djembes and other natural percussions including Indigenous hand drums, keyboards, rattles and such.

I remember listening to traditional l’nu songs all growing up. I remember them on loop in my mind, and the work that goes into properly pronouncing the words and conveying the melody. As a youngster, I was enthralled with MTV and did not have cable TV, so I would go to my friends house or get VHS bootlegs of popular music videos. At home, we never had cable TV but we had music in abundance. Tapes, records, 8-tracks, and later compact discs would fill the drawers and shoeboxes under beds. This had a major effect on the person I was to become.

Music in my life

I have always gravitated towards music and performance. Later in life, I became an ECMA nominee as well as an Aboriginal Music Award nominee and toured Canada. I also had a #1 hit on the Indigenous Music Countdown and currently have a rock/soul single in heavy rotation on Sirius Radio. Throughout my life I have experimented, with all types of music.

Nowadays I find the most joy in the hand drum and taking out my SG to play some 12-bar blues. I still do studio sessions and make singles for airplay, but I must say, the power of music and spiritual prayer is the only reason I’ve ever done it. I enjoy the trance-like state of tapping into a greater life. See, when I tour and perform pop music, I am putting on a show. However, when I sit with my drum at home on the couch, or when I sing for a large assembly hall, I am praying.

L’nu music for me is fundamentally about connecting to Gisulg the Creater. Kjiginap. I often have my best performance when I tune out the room and sing, thinking about all my relations Msit Nokamaq, or all that has existed or ever will. See, when I am drumming and chanting I am singing to the grandmas, I am singing to the grandfathers, the rocks, the stars… I think that is the part that people connect to on a visceral level.

Music is the medicine

“Music is the medicine,” I remember hearing somewhere on tour. That always stuck with me as an l’nu. See, we see food as medicine. We see spirituality as medicine, items, ritual, ceremony… music being part of that.

I was sitting around waiting for an event to start one day with my good friend Bernie Francis and I asked him the word for guitar in L’nuisuti. He told me “Awain,” referencing that l’nu see it as a Hawaiian instrument and thus adopted the instrument. We warmed up for our performances that night by remembering and playing some old tunes. It was at the Friendship Centre in the middle of winter and we were all buzzing on the same wavelength; that’s an example of the medicine; that’s what feels good. The same feeling that motivates my father to snap his head back and sing Hello Dolly, remembering the effect jazz music had on reserve with the old timers.

The drum has a heartbeat

“Musictemun,” as my father calls music, is all about those moments. There is magic when you can capture them.

My ritual every time I drum is to acknowledge Gisulg and Msit Nokamaq. I usually do an offering to the four directions and then the fifth direction, which is the self. The drum has a heartbeat, so I treat it with respect like any living thing. My drum and I have been all over the country and it always nice to share the sacred songs and teachings with others.

I have the most beautiful little girl, Militaw Mae, and she has her first drum. I see instantly, the connection to all of our relations along the line, harking back to time immemorial. There is something about the drum that connects us to a way of life.

I also play other traditional instruments like the Jikamaqn, which is the Mi’kmaq tambourine. It is a piece of basket ash that is split on the ends. It produces a wrapping sound similar to a few spoons. I like to play the Putup song with that instrument. It is a very ancient transformation song that our people sung. My father recovered it in researching our history. The song had been recorded in old missionary documents and my nooch brought it back to the people. It is an asseleandro, so it speeds up over time and is played until the performer can no longer keep up the pace.

About Raymond Sewell

Pipukwes Latto’law (Raymond Gilbert Sewell), BA, MA is an l’nu from the Mi’kmaq district of Kespek – specifically Ge’gwapsgug, opens a new window. He is a “community bridger” working at Saint Mary’s University in two roles, Indigenous student advising and religious studies lecturer. He volunteers on many committees including Neptune Theatre's Board of Directors, and guest lectures and interfaces with many organizations. He is a published poet and a patron of the arts. He is also a traditional instrumentalist as well as performer with an extensive background in music. Check out his music on Spotify, opens a new window.