Odaabaanag – The Story So Far

by Felix Mills, Metcalf Foundation Intern – Community Engagement Associate

Audience responses at Odaabaanag’s Work-In-Progress performance, May 5, 2019, weaved into a Loom.

Working with the choir and having this kind of collaboration with my daughter is huge. My mother went to residential school so it’s very much part of our family history. The fact that we’re working with elders from my family’s home territory is very important and the fact that there’s interest, in some place as far away as Toronto, in this history, is very exciting.
– Beverley McKiver, composer

is a collaboration between Soundstreams and Jumblies, bringing together perspectives, stories, and communities to explore collaboration between community arts and contemporary music, across Indigenous and Settler/Immigrant cultures, and across regions (Toronto and Northern Ontario). Odaabaanag is an Ojibwe word that translates closely to “trains”.

Anishinaabe composer Melody McKiver was inspired by Steve Reich’s “Different Trains”, recently presented by Soundstreams in February 2019, to create a new work for string quartet and recorded community voices. With support from Ontario Trillium Foundation, Odaabaanag came to life featuring a chamber piece by Melody McKiver and a song cycle composed by their mother, Beverley McKiver, for all-abilities and all-ages community choir. Both works draw from interviews conducted in their family’s home territory of Lac Seul First Nation, with Melody’s work featuring audio excerpts from interviews with elders and Beverley’s work using the content of these interviews as lyrics in her songs.

Beverley McKiver (left), Melody McKiver (right) speaking at Odaabaanag’s work-process performance, May 5, 2019

On May 5th, 2019, the Arts & Letters Club in Toronto was reclaimed for a meeting of many perspectives. The Gather Round Singers community choir, Melody Mckiver, Beverley Mckiver, a string quartet, recorded voices of Lac Seul First Nation elders, Soundstreams, Jumblies, and an excited audience, all came together to share in a work-in-progress performance of Odaabaanag, presented to a full house! Stories were honoured and music was enjoyed. Comments were collected from audience members who were moved by the experience as well as artists involved:

“Having the interviews play before the choir was very powerful. You’re able to hear a direct connection between the storytelling and composition.” – audience member at work-in-progress performance

“It was exciting. I hadn’t heard Melody’s work. I’d heard little bits of it, but to hear it performed by players of such calibre was a big thrill and to see the interest in the audience that came out for a work in progress, that was also pretty exciting, and to hear my own work performed, to be able to listen to that, was a huge honour.” – Beverley McKiver, composer of song cycle for the Gather Round Singers

“There’s something really fascinating about hearing the same words treated in such different ways within the same performance. I feel like I have had the opportunity to learn this story in many ways and from many angles, and I feel the audience will have the same experience.” – Arie Verhuel-van de Ven, violist for work-in-progress performance’s string quartet

Ruth Howard, Jumblies Theatre (left), Emma Fowler, Soundstreams (right) with sign language interpreter, speaking at Odaabaanag’s work-process performance, with Gather Round Singers behind, May 5, 2019,

Deep living memories inform the music of Odaabaanag. Beverley McKiver provides insight into the powerful stories of elders Garnet Angeconeb and Josephine King and how their memories of residential schools influence and shape her songs, as well as Melody’s work:

“The first [song] was based on text by Garnet Angeconeb, from his interview with Melody. That was the piece that was performed at the work-in-progress. I took his words and pretty much translated them verbatim into the lyrics for the song … and it was important for me to do that to capture his voice and cadences…It’s very much his work as well as my own. Melody asked him ‘what was it like before he went to residential schools’ so that’s what he talked about – how the way of life was.

Josephine [King]’s [interview] is more about residential school and what they lost by being taken away. She has basic instructions for living and advice for young people – or anybody – about getting your spiritual name and how that would guide you during your life. Then she talks about things that happened at residential school – being punished for speaking your language, being separated from your siblings according to gender, the impact on the family members who got left behind. For example: their mother would be in the kitchen and she would be moaning. Every morning that was her ritual. So there’s some very powerful history there but what struck me is it’s very simple, the way that she talks about it, it’s very compact but it’s very powerful. During one part of the interview she’s just a little girl and she’s recalling in her language – she says – ‘She! Eya aaniin nao ziisow kamik?’* which loosely translates to ‘What is going on? How could this be?’ At this point she’s talking about how they were told their spirituality was evil, was devil worship, and things of this nature so that’s what she’s thinking and that’s so powerful, as a child to be thinking – you know – ‘How could this be? We have a good way of life’ but there’s nothing she can do. She’s powerless. I’m using that in the chorus.”

Josephine King’s words used in a chorus of Beverley McKiver’s second song in the cycle for community choir and accompaniment – “What is Going On?”:

How can this be?
What is going on?
She! Eya aaniin nao ziisow kamik? *

More of Josephine’s words, used in another chorus:

You are here for a reason
You are here for a purpose
Walk on this Mother Earth for a little while
Be a good person while you’re here

“The message that I took from Josephine’s words,” says Beverley, “is about keeping your core beliefs and being a good person. It’s a universal message that can apply to everyone. In Josephine’s case, I felt that those teachings sustained her even though her family ties, language and spirituality were under attack. Even as a young child, she could recognize that this was not right. I hope that people can relate to this message and their own experiences and situations that are happening now.”

This fall, Beverley McKiver will rejoin Jumblies, the Gather Round Singers, and choir director Shifra Cooper, to prepare for Odaabaanag’s culminating performance in November, 2019, “When I compose I’m thinking of my work as musical narratives so I’m hoping that, when people hear the interview [with Josephine King], that the stories will become more personal to themselves and that the music will capture and do justice and honour their stories.”

Melody McKiver will complete their piece, continuing to mix string quartet and interview voices. As Melody told Wholenote Magazine, they hope to “honour the stories that have been shared with me and this process is giving me a moment to deeply reflect on the teachings that I have been gifted. An important part of the process for me is to find a way where I can amplify these voices in a manner that is respectful.”

Want to feel the effect of these voices and stories through music?
Join Soundstreams, Jumblies, and friends in November to experience the culmination of Odaabaanag, featuring Melody McKiver’s Reich-inspired chamber work and Beverley’s full song cycle for the Gather Round Singers community choir.

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*orthographic spelling of Ojibwe words is a temporary transcription, to be verified