Composer/Pianist: Tomson Highway
Vocals: Patricia Cano
Saxophone: Marcus Ali
Reviewer: Gareth Davies
The Cree language and culture belongs to one of the Indigenous populations of Canada, and playwright Tomson Highway focuses his work and his songs in the people, places and themes of this community. Last appearing at the Edinburgh International Festival in 1988, Highway now brings a short song cycle to the Fringe, along with vocalist Patricia Cano and saxophonist Marcus Ali.
The songs presented are drawn from across Highway’s canon, most heavily from his 2010 musical The (Post) Mistress, telling stories of both the human and spiritual elements of Cree culture, and the barefoot chanteuse Cano delivers them with both heart and soul, and (in one particularly vocally-athletic number set in Buenos Aires, Argentina) a whole lot of thorax and oesophagus too.
Jazz, bossa nova and blues rhythms all filter through the songs, and whilst there is a definite showtunes standard feel to many of them, Highway is unafraid to tackle weighty subjects, too. ‘The Lunch’ is written in response to the brutal rape and murder of a Cree woman in 1971, highlighting the experience of the Cree as a brutalised and mistreated community within their own land.
A greater focus on the Cree language itself would be welcome – English is still dominant in the majority of the chosen songs – along with some more information and context for those who are unfamiliar with it, and would help to explore Highway’s suggestion that with an origin going back over 60,000 years, the Cree culture is connected to the Earth and the spiritual landscape in a way that could help address modern planetary issues.
But in all there is a casual confidence that comes with Highway’s passion for his work and his writing. He plays with gusto, and entirely without sheet music, and the dynamic between him, Cano and Ali suggests strongly the joy bound up in bringing these words and music to a wider audience.
Runs until 18 August 2019 (not 5 or 12) | Image: Contributed