Métis music reflects their mixed ancestry and therefore comprises an amalgam of music styles, languages, and socio-cultural elements.
Indigenous and French Influences
A good example is the following song in Plains Cree/English and French sung by Mme Alphonse Carrière of Winnipeg in 1971, when she was 63. Her family, originally from Manitoba's Red River colony, moved to North Dakota in 1872-3 (possibly as a result of the 1870 resistance) and later returned to Manitoba 'bringing' the song with them.
My Girl is an Irish Girl
My girl is an Irish Girl / She's all the world to me / Everytime I come to town / I buy her a package of tea / Ki-Kakwecim-ilonan les pataques [She asks us for potatoes] / That's all she has for me. / In nice pink dress and ribbon few / Ha ni ma nakosi-w [??]
It's always the same to girls / wherever they may be, / In nice pink dress and ribbon tea / All is grand and pretty. / Nehiyaw-ak [we are Indians] all the same. / They're all as good as we. / Kahkiyaw ki-sâkih-ikwak, [All love you] / Kwayês, nama ci? [Isn't that right?]
First time I met that girl / it was at an Appleski dance, / the way she threw her feet around / Her arm and around her dancing / Al à main left and elbow swing / Ayi wesh day hi no / Ni-sâkih-ik, ni-sâkih-âw, [she loves me, I love her.] / Kwayês nama ci? [isn't that right?]
There was an old man his name was Jack / He had a shack acoss the road / Everytime the girls would go by would meet old Jack / With a beaming face / And all his six foot smile he'd say / Ki-ka âtamisk-itinâwâw [I greet you guys] / Kahkiyaw ki-sâkih-ikwak, [All love you] / Kwayês, nama ci? [Isn't that right?]
(Henri Letourneau Collection, St Boniface Historical Society, Metropolitan Winnipeg, 1971. Translation by Peter Bakker, Institute for General Linguistics, U of Amsterdam.)
The Métis partake of the enormous repertoire of 'chanson' which Europeans brought from France, but the language and vocabulary is uniquely Canadian. In the example below, compare the version which is written to sound like Métis singing with the version written in standard French:
The Young Girl Who Wanted to Get Married
Version as sung by Joe Venne:
Il y avait une belle fille / Qui voulait se mareiller / Elle démandait son père / Aussi sa tendré mère / Bonjour mon cher père / J'voudrais meu pareiller / Quand j'ai pensé aux amants / Ca m'empêche dé dormir
Il y avait une belle fille / Qui voulait se marier / Elle demandait à son père / Aussi sa tendre mère / Bonjour mon cher père / Je voudrais me marier / Quand je pense aux amants / Ca m'empêche de dormir.
(Joe Venne, Birtle, Man, 1988; SMEA Collection.)
In the second half of the 19th century, the Métis created their own songs, in the style of traditional folk song, which commented on the immediate events of their lives: religious, agricultural, and particularly on the political turmoil of the times. With the late-20th century upsurge of political consciousness several of these songs are again becoming well known, such as the following which is attributed to the 19th century Métis leader, Louis Riel:
Je suis métisse et je suis orgueilleuse / D'apartenir à cette nation./ Je sais que Dieu de Sa main généreuse / S'est fait que peuples avec attention / Le Métis semble un petit peuple encore, / Mais vous pouvez voir déja leur destin. / Entre haïs, trahis, fallait honneur, / Il fallait faire un plis de grand dessin. / Ah! Si jamais je devais être aimée, / Je choisirais pour mon fidèle amant / Un des soldats de la petite armée / Que commandait notre fier Dumont, / Que commandait notre fier Dumont.
(Mme Jean Lafrénière, Saint Francois-Xavier, Manitoba. Henri Letourneau Collection, 1969, Saint Boniface Historical Society, Winnipeg)
The Métis also sing in their own language, Michif, which generally consists of Plains Cree verbs and French nouns:
La Montagne Tortue ki-ka-itohtâ-nân
La Montagne Tortue ki-ka-itohtâ-nân / en charette ki-ka-itotâpaso-nân / La viande pilee ki-ka-mîciso-nân / l'ecorce de bouleau ki-ka-misâho-nân / [We are going to Turtle Mountain / We go in Red River cart / We wear mocassins / We eat pemmican / We wipe our arse with birch bark]
(John Gosselin, Lebret, Sask, 1990, SMEA Collection.)
Until the recent construction of public gathering places, the setting for most Métis music was the home. Frequent family gatherings provided the occasions to sing and tell stories. The men would often gather in one room and take turns singing until the wee hours of the morning. Their vivid songs were full of humour and description of the joys of drink and women (personal communication with Joe Venne, Birtle [Ste Madeline], Man, 1988).
J'ai Cogné Sur Ma Tonne
J'ai cogné sur ma tonne / Ma tonne qui me résonne / En s'écriant: Dou-hou, y'a plus rien / Dans mon tonneau / Femmes et hommes, filles / De tous nos chanteux / Qu'on boira tant qu'on vivra plus longtemps / Mon ivrogne!
(Jos Riguidelle, Henri Letourneau Collection, St Boniface Archives, Winnipeg, 1972.)
The women had equally large repertoires of song, many of them pertaining to the pleasures and, just as often, the pains of love and marriage. The following 'chanson de table' was sung by the whole family as they were seated together around the table to celebrate a marriage:
Nous Sommes Ici à Soir
Nous sommes ici à soir / Assises à votre table / Salut la compagnie / Aussi la mariée / Avez-vous bien compris la belle mariée? / Etes-vous bien entendu que le curé vous a dit? / Fidele à votre amant envers et contre tout /Fidele à votre tour votre amant comme vous./ Tu n'iras plus au bal, Madame la mariée? / Tu n'iras plus au bal ou aussi d'assemblée. / Vous garderez la maison tandis que nous irons / Vous garderez tout ce logis avec votre mari. / Le chateau sur ton terre c'est le chateau brillant / C'est la terre des plaisirs qui est plus de misère / Le chateau sur ton terre c'est un chateau brillant / C'est la terre des plaisirs qui est plus de misère / Adieu plaisir d'une jeune fille comme moi / Adieu la misère qui nous voit donc mariés.
(Mme Alfred LeFrénière, Henri Letourneau Collection, Saint Boniface Archives, Winnipeg, 1972.)
Impromptu dances happened weekly in some communities. As word of the evening's entertainment spread around the community, the family hosting the dance would stack their furniture in a corner of the house, or even outside. Because most adult males could play a musical instrument, the music and dancing would last throughout the night. Everyone was welcome to come to these dances, even the priest, and the sound of the music could often be heard across the community (personal communication, Grand Rapids, Man, 1981).
Where the old time dances still continue, the favourites are the polka, waltz, two-step, schottische, and square dance. While it is recognized that Métis square dances differ from non-Indigenous (a combination of Indigenous footwork with the set patterns of squares from Scotland and France), it is the Red River Jig which is the pride of Métis families, and they like to joke by saying that the way to drive a Métis crazy is to nail his moccasins to the floor and play the Red River Jig (personal communication, Crane River, Man, 1981). Families guard their own steps and 'introductory' (the beginning steps unique to each jigger) and enjoy competing in jigging contests (personal communication, Cayer, Man, 1981). A good Métis jigger is light on his feet, keeps in time to the music, uses many different steps during one dance and travels in circles rather than lines (personal communication, Crane River, Man, 1981). There are other dances such as the double jig which was danced by two couples and the 'Ta pi ska kan ni si mo win,' in which a silk scarf was tied around the head and the partner held the end. There was also a dance called the rabbit dance and remembered as great fun, in which the man chased his female partner (personal communication, Grand Rapids, Man, 1981).
Generally Métis music instruments were portable, easy to tune and to play be ear, such as the fiddle (violin), mouth-organ, accordion, spoons, comb, and jaw harp. But another folk saying is that there was rarely a Métis home that didn't have a fiddle hanging on the wall (personal communication, Grand Rapids, Man, 1981) and when they could not afford to order one from a catalogue they would make them, often from maple wood and birch bark. Sometimes, lacking other instruments, the fiddle would be tuned to the bagpipes (personal communication, Grand Rapids, Man, 1981). The violin has latterly been superseded by the guitar, another portable instrument relatively easy to obtain and maintain.
The Métis adapted European violin style, as they did the dance and songstyle, to their own cultural predilection. Lederman suggests that the introduction, monotone endings, descending pitch and five-beat phrases typical of old Ojibwa song are also characteristics of Indigenous/Métis fiddling in Manitoba. Hence, although Métis fiddling partakes of the Scots-Irish tradition, Lederman believes it also has essential elements of traditional Ojibwa music.
Although fiddling remains popular, Métis access to the popular media appears to be extinguishing the aforementioned Indigenous music elements. Métis musicians now regularize the uneven phrases to phrases of unvarying four and eight beats, and are introducing complex harmonic structures rather than adhering to the simple harmonic progressions of the older tunes (personal communication, Brandon, Man, 1989).
More and more, the Métis sing and compose in the English language and in pop/country style. The following contemporary song sung by Edgar Desjarlais of Winnipeg sums up the ongoing social dilemma of the Métis:
Red Man's Shoes - White Man's Shoes
I ain't red nor am I white, / I've been like this for all of my life / People say I'm white inside / White inside and red outside.
But sometimes I find myself, / Wishin' I was in Red Man's Shoes / Then sometimes I find myself, / Wishin' I was in White Man's Shoes.
But I'm not ashamed at all my friends, / I'm proud to be just what I am./ Nothin's gonna change the way I feel / Inside my heart and inside my head. / Red Man's Shoes - White Man's Shoes, / Red Man's Shoes - White Man's Shoes.
(SMEA Collection, 1990.)