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Vancouver International Jazz Festival artist in residence Pura Fé loves singing on water

Pura Fé by Jack Storm Photography
In addition to being a singer-songwriter, Pura Fé is also a storyteller. Jack Storm Photography.

When Pancouver reaches legendary Indigenous folk and blues musician Pura Fé, she has some good news to share. The northern Saskatchewan resident plans to visit Vancouver to record her newest album, Canoe.

“It’s focusing on waterways—ancestral waterways,” Fé says over Zoom. “Eventually, I’d like to make it into a very large project with other people from all over.”

Fé, a keen environmentalist, has been singing “Canoe Song” for many years. She often uses the loop pedal, which enables her to overdub her voice to create a vibrant soundscape. But she’s never compiled a collection of canoe-related music on one album.

“It would be beautiful to hear many recordings from all over the place—hearing people singing their songs that they sing on the water—even down to pirate songs,” she says. “I just love singing on the water.”

Pura Fé sings “Canoe Song” in 2012.

Fé was born in New York City and is often referred to as a Tuscarora-Taino artist. Her father, Juan Antonio Crescioni-Collazo, was born in Maunabo, Puerto Rico to a mother of Borinquen Taino ancestry.

According to Fé, her new album will be mostly in the Taino language.

Fé’s mother, Nanice Lund, was an opera singer who performed in Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concert series. Her ancestry goes back to the Tuscarora Deer Clan of North Carolina, as well as to the region’s early Scottish and Irish residents.

Tuscarora members were part of the Iroquois Confederacy. Prior to European contact, some migrated from what’s now New York and Ontario to the Eastern Carolina region.

Fé’s new disc isn’t her only connection to Vancouver this year. She will also perform on June 30 with Jesse Zubot at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival.

Watch the trailer for Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World.

Fé knows her history 

In addition, Fé will be an artist in residence at the jazz fest. Plus, she and Zubot will hold an open rehearsal on June 29 at the Western Front.

That’s not all. Fé will attend a June 27 screening of the award-winning 2017 documentary, Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, at the Vancity Theatre. She’ll join Secwepemc/Ktunaxa filmmaker and Capilano University instructor Doreen Manuel in conversation after the movie.

Fé appeared in the film with a long list of other musicians, including Robbie Robertson, Buffy Sainte-Marie, George Clinton, and Steven Van Zandt. Directed by Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Malorana, the documentary demonstrates how Indigenous musicians influenced the development of rock ‘n’ roll.

It’s a subject that Fé is eager to discuss with Pancouver. When asked how music spread from her people to the broader community, she quips “through marriage”.

Then, she gets serious, talking about connections between Tuscarora people in the East Carolina region and Black slaves before the U.S. Civil War.

She says that they made music together on different plantations. Then she rattles off the names of some of them, such as the Monk, Coles, Lee, and Blackwell estates.

“They were not like these big, rich plantations you see in the movies—like in Georgia with the big pillars and the Venetian whatever,” Fé says. “These were these little tiny pissant plantations.”

She points out that those who owned the plantations were often of Scottish and Irish heritage whose ancestors had come to clear the land. Then they purchased African slaves, some of whom played music with the local Tuscarora Indigenous people.

Watch a slide show created for Pura Fé’s song “Follow Your Heart’s Desire”.

Intermarriage shaped the music

She then tells the story of a man named Pharoah Lee, who was born in 1791 and died in 1875. Lee never marred but he had a woman of African ancestry on his plantation. She gave birth to several of his Black sons named Lee, according to genealogy records.

“They fell in love. They had children together,” Fé says. “He kept her. He had all these sons and they were musicians.

“They played banjos; they were a string band,” she continues. “They had kids and their kids married Indian women.”

According to Fé, Tuscarora female singers also married into the Blackwell family.

“This is the typical thing that would happen,” she says. “And that’s because people grew up together and they made music together. There are influences from all sides.”

In the interview, she also mentions that a group of scholars and teachers with the Southern Historical Association have invited her to speak about this at conferences.

“A couple of them said, ‘You know, everything you do in one hour on-stage is my whole curriculum’,” Fé says with a laugh.

This exploration of genealogy and intermarriage is just one component of a far-reaching musical journey. Fé grew up when Motown music was big, but she was even more influenced by Joni Mitchell, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and Charley Patton. Many know about Fé through her work with the a cappella trio Ulali.

Fé has also sung with Sainte-Marie on several occasions.

“But mostly, the girls that I sang with, Ulali, they went on the road and sang backup for her,” she says. “I was too busy over in France and so forth.”

Indeed, Fé is very popular in France. She won the French equivalent of a Grammy—L’académie Charles Cros Award—for Best World Album for Tuscarora Nation Blues. In addition, Fé received a Native American Music Award for Best Female Artist for “Follow Your Heart’s Desire”.

Pura Fé likens what’s happened in Saskatchewan to Central America. Photo by Clément Puig.

Fé feels disgust over resource exploitation

Fé has also been a fierce advocate for Indigenous rights. Moreover, she’s especially disturbed by resource extraction in Saskatchewan.

“It’s pretty gross,” Fé declares. “I compare it to Central America because I see the government issuing permits to private families that own logging companies. They don’t even live there and are coming in and just chewing up the forests. Then, of course, this is helping to make way for the corridor for another pipeline.”

In the meantime, Fé points out that wildfires continue flaring across all four western provinces. Plus, she says there’s a toxic mix of evangelism, gangs, and drugs in northern Saskatchewan.

“Children are being plucked out left and right, being put into foster care,” Fé adds. “So they’re just trying to get rid of the Indigenous population so they can take the rest of the land.”

It’s left her feeling pessimistic about the future, notwithstanding efforts by educators to revive Indigenous culture to save the people. And it’s given her more motivation to make the type of music that can help change the world.

Fé expects her new album to be out around the end of summer.

“Water connects everyone.” she says. “That’s not just in the Western Hemisphere. That’s the whole friggin’ planet.”

Pura Fé shows her jazz chops whenever she sings “Summertime” by George Gershwin.

The Vancouver International Jazz Festival presents Pura Fé and Jesse Zubot: Chamber of Bones in an open rehearsal at 3 p.m. on June 29 at the Western Front. They will perform live at 7:30 p.m. on June 30 at Performance Works. For tickets, visit Coastaljazz.ca. Fé will be at Vancity Theatre at 6:30 p.m. on June 27 for the screening of Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, which will be presented by the Talking Stick Festival.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.