Behind Alex Cuba’s Canada Day performance in Wit’suwet’in

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‘I’m digging into the roots of my adopted land,’ says Cuban-Canadian songwriter

By Andrew Kurjata, CBC News Posted: Jul 01, 2016 7:00 AM PT Last Updated: Jul 01, 2016 7:00 AM PT

Cuban-Canadian singer Alex Cuba had the lyrics of one of his songs translated into the Wit'suwet'in language for a Canada Day performance on Parliament Hill.

Cuban-Canadian singer Alex Cuba had the lyrics of one of his songs translated into the Wit’suwet’in language for a Canada Day performance on Parliament Hill. (Alex Cuba photo: Paul Darrow/Reuters; Lyrics photo: Alex Cuba/Facebook)

When Cuban-born singer Alex Cuba takes the national stage for a performance on Parliament Hill this Canada Day, he’ll be showcasing the language of his adopted home — and it isn’t English or French.

Instead, the Juno and Grammy-award winning artist will be performing a verse from his song Directo in Wit’suwet’in, an Athabaskan language spoken by First Nations in northwest British Columbia.

Cuba says the performance is his way of paying tribute to his adopted home, the small town of Smithers in northern B.C.

“I have roots in that part of Canada now,” he said. “I made Smithers my home for over 13 years now, and my kids, they are growing in Smithers.”

“I’m basically digging into the roots of my adopted land.”

From Spanish to English to Wit’suwet’in

Ron Austin

Northwest coast artist Ron Austin (T’sek’ot) translated lyrics from English to Wit’suwet’in. (Northwest Community College)

The lyrics were translated by Ron Austin (T’sek’ot), an artist and hereditary chief living in nearby Moricetown.

First, Cuba had to translate the words from Spanish to English. Then, Austin got to work adapting them to Wit’suwet’in.

“I had to search for some words like ‘hopelessness,’ because in our language it’s said almost like a sentence,” the chief said. The closest he could come was the phrase, “My heart is in confusion.”

“It’s a more expressive language.”

Endangered language takes national stage

It was during this collaboration that Cuba discovered the deeper significance of the project.

Alex Cuba Director lyrics in Wit'suwet'in

The lyrics of Alex Cuba’s song ‘Directo’ translated into Wit’suwet’in, along with handwritten notes. (Alex Cuba/Facebook)

There are only a few fluent Wit’suwet’in speakers left: somewhere between 70 and 200.

Austin says when he was growing up, children spoke nothing but Wit’suwet’in. That changed when he was sent to a Catholic day school.

“We were not allowed to practice our language and not allowed to speak any native language without being disciplined. Now you see our children around the village, all they do is speak English.”

Cuba says hearing this reaffirmed his commitment to learning the verse.

“It became more clear to me, what if I can do this on national television? … I am honoured to be able to do my little bit to help save this language.”

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