Aaniin dash Ziibiwan gi-maamakaadendaagozi na?
It seems most appropriate to ask “Why Ziibiwan is awesome” in Anishinaabemowin. Translations between English and Anishinaabemowin, the traditional language of the Anishinaabeg peoples, are always a messy business. Words and concepts don’t always smoothly transition between languages and cultures. These transitions get further impeded after centuries of colonial trauma. I’m questioning my own grammatical translation as I write this, and I know that Ziibiwan and I share similar familial histories of language loss and reclamation amidst Canada’s ongoing colonial violence against Indigenous peoples – even children. That undercurrent of resistance percolates amidst our music, both of us (predominantly) instrumental composers.
One of our first bonding moments was a rather passionate debate of the respective merits of the Ojibwe syllabic writing system (Ziibiwan’s preference, if you wonder about some of his album art design) versus the Fiero system in Roman orthography (my preference and perhaps a safety blanket, refer to my first sentence as an example). The language we communicate in holds power and weight, even for instrumental musicians and producers. But I digress.
To return to maamaakaadendaagozi, the Ojibwe People’s Dictionary defines the word as s/he is amazing, is astonishing, is a wonder. Not quite a direct translation of awesome, but I won’t argue with any of the synonyms when discussing why Ziibiwan is awesome.
I first met Ziibiwan in-person at the Banff Centre in 2015. We were both invited to participate in a collaborative residency called (Re)Claim in the Indigenous Arts Program. Within minutes, he humbled me and captured my heart. On our first meeting he told me that, via Twitter, I was the first Two-Spirit Anishinaabe person he had ever heard of, and had been following my work since he was a teenager. I was floored. I only share our first exchange because I’m so grateful to have the privilege to see how Ziibiwan’s career and artistic output has blossomed in such a phenomenally short time. Fast-forward two weeks at the Banff Centre. Ziibiwan’s on-stage at the Banff Centre, seated at a grand piano, delivering heart-breaking spoken word poetry about residential schools and their multi-generational impacts. I was wiping away tears on stage. That piece didn’t make the final performance amidst a complicated group process, but I knew then that Ziibiwan is an artist to watch and cherish.
Music is a challenging industry to be at the best of times, and Two-Spirit Indigenous artists face further obstacles, barriers, and assumptions. Indigenous artists have started to gain more prominent profiles within the Canadian industry at large within the past few years, but it can still be a lonely place for a young Anishinaabeg.
A Tribe Called Red has been propelled to international stardom, becoming almost synonymous with Indigenous electronic music. Ziibiwan is such a different artist that I have no desire to compare the two beyond the broadest ‘electronic music’ definition possible, but I will ask – what do you listen to when the party’s over? His is the late-night introspective headphone music that betrays influences such as the sombreness of Burial, the harmonies and timbre of later Radiohead, and some of the aesthetics of Björk. Writing this article, I revisited Ziibiwan’s 2015 release Niizh and I’m still unraveling the layers. Ziibiwan’s potential is limitless and I can’t wait to see what he releases next. Gitchi-miigwech Ziibiwan, gi-zhawenimin. Mi’iw.
Melody Megwe-aanakwad McKiver is an Anishinaabe violist, composer, and media artist. They are a member of Obishikokaang Lac Seul First Nation in Treaty #3 territory, and currently live in Sioux Lookout in Northwestern Ontario. Reach them at melodymckiver.com or @m_melody on Twitter.