Listening and dancing to the music at a pow-wow is a wonderful experience. The drum brings out the spirit of the dancers, especially when the song is good. When the singers sing hard, you feel the music in your heart and soul. There were many amazing drums and singers at the Fort Totten Pow-wow Celebration on July 28-30, 2017, and I got a chance to visit and interview singer Allan Bonaise.
Allan Bonaise (Cree & Nakoda) is from Little Pine, Saskatchewan he started singing at the young age of 3, “I started singing when I was three years old. I’ve had many mentors, my late grandfather, my uncles and other singers from back home,” adding, “There is a round dance circle, a pow-wow circle, and a ceremony circle and all the songs that go with each circle.”
Bonaise said that he started, ‘Fly-In Eagle’ and stayed with them for a long time. He’s gone on to sing with a lot of other drum groups in the pow-wow circle.
Allan’s singing talent has taken him as far as Finland and Italy. “My singing has brought me a lot of blessings and travel, I’ve gone to Finland and Italy, a few times I got offered to take tours in other countries, but due to other obligations, he had to stay home. “But none the less the opportunities where there such work, my life as I live it now. I was heading into a bad place and singing brought me life – a good lifestyle, good friends, good family I had a beautiful wife that I was married to for 23 years. I have three kids and I have a grandson, that came from this pow wow circle.” Bonaise has also composed his own songs throughout his professional career in the pow-wow trail. “I’ve come a long ways from when I first started to now.”
“I’ve come a long ways from when I first started to now.”
When asked how many songs does he know, he replied, “I’m not sure how many, my family has naming songs, sweat-lodge songs, I sing a lot with my uncles and help out that way. I went to the round dance circle, to the pow wow circle, and I sang with a lot of tribes not only the Cree. This weekend I’m singing with Eyabay and they sing in Dakota they also sing in Ojibway and Ho-Chunk and Winnebago. Bonaise said that all the songs that were sung that weekend were new to him, “The songs have been out there, they are champion songs. Eyabay has won World Championships and it feels great to be singing with them.” This weekend I’m learning songs with them, I probably learned about 15 songs this weekend that I never sang before, I’m still learning.”
When he’s singing with the other drum from different territories, Allan has picked up the language because he sings the songs that they have composed from their area. “Just like anywhere else, when you go to Europe, people talk in three or four different languages. And here in North America, before colonialism, our people poke many different languages through trade. I’ve sung in Shashawnee, Dakota, Lakota, Nakoda, Cree, Ojibway, Menominee, and others.”
Singers are required to sing on the average of about three songs per session, at a pow-wow there are usually five sessions. And depending on the size of the pow-wow and how many drums will determine how many songs a drum group will sing at that pow-wow. The singers need to take care of their voices and maintain it. To sing requires tone, breathing, timing and passion. “I come from a singing background, I was told how to take care of my voice if I wanted to sing for long time. And a lot of that had to do with lack of drugs and alcohol, even cigarette smoking and how to eat healthier, how to maintain it through exercise, rest, and replenishing our bodies through nourishment. I’ve had my bought with alcohol and drugs back in the day. And you know I still struggle with it a bit, the main part is when I am here at the drum I do vocal exercises and drink a lot of water to maintain my voice. When I sing I try to take it easy, on the weekend and try to rest my voice. I’m 50 now and still leading and singing with other groups. I m singing with Eyabay this weekend, and it’s a real honoured to sing with one of the top drums on the pow wow trail.”
When travelling on the pow-wow trail you collect many memorable moments, Bonaise’ most memorable one was when he first started out on the pow-wow trail. “My most memorable pow wow was when I was a teenager when I started to sing pow wow. I went to Rocky Boy Montana pow-wow and sang with Red Bull. I experienced a lot that weekend, I got to lead for the first time and many whistles were blown on the drum. I met up with my wife and we started going out which led to marriage.”
When you listen to a drum group singing, and the song is good, there is a spirit that is felt when you hear the song. Dancers fill the pow-wow arena during an Intertribal song, where all dancers and spectators are invited and welcomed to dance, or when they are singing for a dance category, the dancer dances hard. “There are different times when something special is happening, sometimes it’s the tone and over all sound and loudness of the group. This weekend we had some adversity, we barely had six guys, and another came and helped us out. We felt the spirit, we were singing hard. Eyabay is a champion drum name and it’s a special name. The group consists of singers who are great individuals and representatives of the drum. Head singers Lee Lussier and the late Terry St John have encouraged many people in North American to start singing. They are very well-respected men. I feel really honoured to sit and sing with Eyabay this weekend, it feels really good. Melissa Brady came and sang with the drum for one song, and when a lady comes and sings with the drum there is a special added bonus.”
When the singing competition is on, the drum judges base their decision on the four leads, how clear the singers are, the unison of the drum, the check beater, the down beater, the timing the song, how lively is the song, how are the dancers reacting to the song, the loudness of the group, and the sound of the drum.
I asked Bonaise if he has mentored up and coming singers. He went on to say, “I have been mentoring here and there throughout my life. A lot of the guys started singing with me and have become World Champion singers. A lot of them have come back to me and say ‘you started us off you crazy guy’, it feels great.” This year at Gathering of Nations pow-wow in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Bonaise sang with the Poundmaker Drum from Poundmaker, Saskatchewan, the lead singer Clyde Tootoosis went up to him and hugged him. “He said you taught me everything, and that felt great. Gathering of Nations pow-wow was also the first time in my life that I won a World Singing Championship. I’m happy for singers that reach the height.” Adding, “Sometimes its silent mentorship too, singers have come up to me and told me that they’ve seen me sing with this drum, and that’s what started me singing.”
Bonaise advise to singers starting off is to learn about singing and what it is, go see elders that you see out there in that circle and if you feel a connection offer tobacco and ask about the drum, the songs, the history. “There are all these drum groups that have CD’s for sale, buy them and listen to as much different types of styles of singing there is. The more you learn the better you become.”
“The more you learn the better you become.”
Bonaise currently works with the Correctional Services in Canada and gets time off to attend and sing at pow-wows.