Taansi, nimiss, (Welcome, sister)
Taansi, nistees (Welcome, brother)
Taansi! Kwayus (Welcome, how much…)
Nimithweetheeteen (I like the fact that…)
Eepeetootee-eek (You’ve come)
The words are in Cree, sung in a throaty alto that resonates with knowing warmth.
Anooch kaatipskaak (Tonight)
Tanagaamooyaak (We’re gonna sing)
Taachimoostaatooyaak igwa meena (We’re gonna tell each other stories and, as well…)
Tapaapiyaak, taneemee-itooyaak (We’re gonna laugh, we’re gonna dance)
Aastumik nitooteemuk, aastumik, hey! (So come, my friends, come, hey!)
The song title translates to “Hey Big Sister!” and is part of playwright and novelist Tomson Highway’s newest creation, Kisageetin: A Cabaret.
It’s not the first time Highway has ventured into the world of music; The Cree Cabaret and The Incredible Adventures of Mary Jane Mosquito both boasted sold-out tours around the world, morphing what was a part-time hobby into yet another career for the prolific writer.
“Writing music is a very pleasant pastime,” says Highway. “Some people collect stamps, some people drink, I write music. It comes very natural to me.”
Fans of Highway’s prose — Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, Kiss of the Fur Queen — may be surprised to know that he’s a classically trained pianist who has played for his own pleasure for many years. His musical tastes, however, extend far beyond Bach or Beethoven.
“My inspiration models are Kurt Weill and Cole Porter,” Highway says, “but I take music from wherever I am and make it my own.
“I spend quite a bit of time in South America and my favourite city, Rio de Janeiro, so samba became a fascination for me. I write samba with Cree lyrics instead of Portuguese, although interestingly enough, Cree sounds very similar to Portuguese when sung in samba.”
It doesn’t hurt that Highway has a bona fide Latin singer giving a voice to his words. He met Patricia Cano nearly 10 years ago as she was finishing a degree in music and Spanish literature at the University of Toronto. Cano was doing a stint at Stratford, and Highway was struck by the Peruvian-Canadian’s rich voice and fluency with different languages. He cast her in The Incredible Adventures of Mary Jane Mosquito, despite the singer’s own misgivings.
“I was not yet convinced I was actually a singer,” confides Cano. “I thought maybe I would go the theatre or translation route, but he proposed it, and who says no to Tomson Highway?
“It was the biggest challenge of my life because he packs so many syllables into the music. But I loved his lyrics. They’re playful, touching, daring, bold and irreverent, but also so delicious and kind. Exactly like Tomson himself, really.”
Kisageetin (which means “I love you” in Cree) is an especially personal project for Highway. While the storyline recounts the adventures of a small-town postmistress who can clairvoyantly read sealed letters, Highway wrote all 12 songs in the cabaret as a tribute to Raymond, his partner of 25 years. The song’s words may vary from Cree to French to English, but the story of their passionate love affair is written in every line.
“I cannot believe my luck,” says Highway. “It’s my greatest blessing in my life, after my health, to be in love for 25 years with a human being who’s the kindest individual on the face of the earth. It’s extraordinary. I’m so thankful.”