Camerata Nova bridges cultural gaps through music

Winnipeg is a city whose culture thrives from the inside out. As a tourist hub and public brand, it may not throw the same punches as some of Canada’s larger cities. However, as a place rooted in ethnic diversity, Winnipeg shows off a cultural array rich enough to produce one of Canada’s most vibrant and thriving art scenes. Among the city’s leading talented artists are award-winning Aboriginal musician/producer Vince Fontaine, and Camerata Nova’s artistic directors Mel Braun and Andrew Balfour. The three of them have collaborated for Camerata Nova’s Red & White Unplugged tonight at the West End Cultural Centre. This is an event that pays tribute to the city’s cultural landscape through music.

Red and White is to be an entirely acoustic concert, featuring songs by Vince Fontaine with his Indigenous pop-rock group Indian City, along with compositions and arrangements by Andrew Balfour and Mel Braun. The program also features a guest performance by Cree drummer/singer Cory Campbell.

Balfour and Braun have been working primarily with arranging songs from Indian City’s latest album, Colors.

Fontaine remarks that the biggest challenge facing Camerata Nova’s artistic directors was in “maintaining the integrity of the band’s songs,” that is, retaining the original melodies while still managing to incorporate parts where the choir has a feature role. Balfour admitted the project has been “the biggest experiment for Camerata Nova thus far in terms of contemporary music.”

The choir only started rehearsals with the band a few days ago. Practices have been mainly structured around the band’s music because the choral parts are written more as instrumental accompaniment. Balfour is very familiar with Fontaine’s work: “There may be a lot of aboriginal elements in [Fontaine’s] work, but it is still so universal. Whether it’s a ballad or a rock number, his work is wonderfully versatile. And because the choir still offers that vocal element the adaptation has been relatively smooth.”


Because the program incorporates so many musical elements – from indigenous folk rock and traditional drumming to classical choral ensemble – the rehearsal process, according to Balfour, has been “kind of like a rollercoaster.” The Tuesday night rehearsal was a non-stop buzz. There was an eclectic feel owing to the variety of people and talents coming together under one roof. Solo pop vocals met with the avant garde sound of the choir; voices and instruments emitted raw noises and simple melodies, pure tones and throaty chants. The music featured a smorgasbord of acoustic talent.


“There are lots of different colors in this concert,” says Balfour, “not just red and white. Camerata is kind of like that, very worldly.”

The music also incorporates a strong element of storytelling. The juxtaposition of sharply contrasting styles succeeds to create a colorful and cohesive narrative about the diversity of our city’s cultural landscape. Balfour says that music features “a lot of dialogue” and “morning themes.” In Fontaine’s ‘Sunrise’ the choir’s part creates a sweeping sounds cape over the drone of a didgeridoo. The bass and tenor voices emulate harsh wind-like noises, while the melodic chanting in the soprano and alto voices paints an image of the prairie sun breaking the horizon. You cannot help but listen enraptured, drawn into the stories and visions conjured by the music. There is a definite tribute to the city’s mythic charm, stemming from its inherent tie to the prairie landscape.


After sitting in on a couple of the rehearsals and chatting with some of the curators and musicians, it’s evident that this project is just as much about the process of working in concert with a variety of artists, as it is about creating a polished program.


The rehearsal’s energy buzzed with optimism and excitement as old friends came together and artists collaborated with one another for the first time.


“Being able to experience all these amazing opportunities means a lot to me,” exclaims Pamela Davis, one Indian City’s lead vocalists.


Davis is thrilled to work alongside Camerata Nova, especially since this is the first time the band has collaborated with a choral ensemble. Davis admits that it was challenging at first working with the different vocal styles, but every rehearsal witnessed a shrink in the genre gap.


Bridging cultural gaps is exactly what Camerata Nova’s latest innovation strives to do. Through the wildly inventive collaboration of indigenous pop-rock, traditional chant and classical ensemble, Red and White Unplugged is guaranteed to be an experience of Winnipeg’s Aboriginal heritage that you’ve certainly never had before.


Red & White Unplugged is tonight (May 15) at the West End Cultural Centre. Showtime is 8:00 PM. Tickets are $28 for adults, $23 for seniors and $12 for students. Buy them online  HERE

Sara Krahn is a freelance contributor for Classic 107. When she is not covering events for us, she is a full time music sudent at CMU.