Sub-series MS-3195.A - Billy Assu Recording Sessions

Whiskey Song 1 Love Song, Little Seal

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Billy Assu Recording Sessions

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  • 1947 (Creation)
    Cape Mudge (B.C.)

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41 sound disks containing 86 songs

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(July 17, 1910 - February 7, 1987)

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The sub-series consists of 41 sound disks recording Billy Assu’s performances of 86 songs and ceremonies of the Wiweḵa̕yi (Cape Mudge) peoples and other local First Nations communities. The Wiweḵa̕yi were one of four tribes known as the Cape Mudge Tribes or La̕a̱lg̱wiłda̕x̱w, the United Tribes of the Lig̱wiłda̕x̱w: ̕Walidza̱m (Salmon River), Wiweḵa̕yi (Cape Mudge), Wiweḵ̕a̱m (Campbell River), Kwix̱a (“Murderers,” Phillip’s Arm). Halpern recorded the performances at Assu’s home in Cape Mudge over a period of three days. Also included in the recording sessions at Assu’s home were two songs by Mary Wamis, a medicine woman from Cape Mudge. As leader of the Wiweḵa̕yi peoples Billy Assu was responsible to preserve and represent his people’s culture and tradition. In an oral society this is captured profoundly in song. Assu was the first Aboriginal Chief to commit to allowing Halpern record performances of indigenous songs and ceremonies. For several years Dr. Halpern campaigned diligently for the need to preserve the oral culture of the Kwakwa̱ka̱̕wakw and other local indigenous peoples. The intimacy and secrecy of many traditional songs made aboriginal leaders reluctant to perform them for public academic study. In a CBC interview with Philip Lamarche [Halpern fonds, CBC Radio Interview, T-4339-143], Halpern explained that Assu’s three sons were not interested in learning the complex songs and ceremonies of their father. Halpern convinced Chief Assu in order to preserve the songs, they should be recorded. Eventually, in 1947 Chief Billy Assu and his wife Mary invited Dr. Halpern to their Cape Mudge home for the purpose of recording some traditional songs. Dr. Halpen recorded 88 unique songs over two recording sessions held in January and June of 1947. The recordings were made onto 26 1x6.5 in., 1x7in., and 1x8 in. laminated discs. Halpern annotated the label of each disc with a song title transcribed from Chief Assu’s description and her own alpha numeric code. Most are also dated on the label of the original recording disk. Comparison can fix an approximate date for those recordings not labeled. The songs’ titles have been phonetically rendered from the original non-textual source. There have been several versions of each song reproduced over time. Single songs have been taken from recording sessions to create compilations. The recording sessions were informal with Billy Assu deciding on songs he wished to perform. Many of the recordings also include informal conversations between Assu and Halpern concerning the songs’ meanings, their performance and the Kwak̕wala language. The recordings are in roughly chronological order based on their creation. Halpern revisited the recordings for study and publication. She made transcriptions of the lyrics and wrote out the music in musical notation. She ordered and categorized the songs several times in her studies. In the published version of Assu’s songs she used four categories: totem poles and crests, potlatch songs, ceremonial songs, songs of everyday life. She explained in the Larmarche interview that most of the songs could be performed in the setting of a potlatch; most concerned the assignment of rights and identity in significant moments in a lifetime. Halpern noted that not only would she need to be an invited guest to hear the potlatches, they were banned under provincial law at the time she recorded Assu’s performances. Halpern noted that Assu was not always comfortable performing certain Hamatsa, Potlach and other songs because of their sacred and personal nature. However, he was convinced they were in danger of being lost and worth recording.

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