CANORA - “We were just on a campfire playing tunes with the production team, she popped into a song I was singing, the harmonies were instant and we eventually got together.”
Ever since that first chance meeting during the taping an APTN TV program about eight years ago, Jaaji (YAAH’- YEE) and his future wife Chelsey June recognized that something special happened when they sang together.
Now touring and recording together as Twin Flames, the audience of 72 at the Canora Arts Council concert at Canora Composite School on Nov. 8 had the opportunity to experience the unique music and storytelling of this talented, award-winning duo.
Audience comments included: “Great presentation and beautiful sound,” “It sounded like more than two people on stage,” “Enjoyable and informative storytelling,” and “Great concert, amazing talent; connected well with the audience.”
“We showcased in 2019 but then there was the pandemic interruption,” said Chelsey. “We’re so happy to finally be here.”
She grew up in the Ottawa/Gatineau area with her mother who was from Maniwaki and spent her childhood surrounded by music. It was this early introduction to a wide variety of songs that helped shape her unique sound and style. She is a proud Indigenous woman with Métis, Algonquin and Cree heritage, and is an advocate for mental health, healthy relationships, and sober living.
Jaaji is an Inuit name derived from the English name George. He grew up in a small community called Quaqtaq in Northern Nunavik where he was raised by his grandparents with the traditional ways of the Inuit. Jaaji spent his summers as a child with his biological father in Kahnawake, a reserve of the traditionally Iroquoian-speaking Mohawk nation on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River. He was raised in two different worlds and cultures. He is an advocate for language revitalization and preservation, passionate about including the Inuktitut language in his songs.
Jaaji admitted to the Canora audience that he was somewhat envious of the large amount of snow on the ground when they arrived to prepare for the concert.
“This weather reminds me of back home, but in Nunavik we don’t have this much snow yet,” he said. “This would be great for snowmobiling.”
In addition to their delightful vocal harmonies, Chelsen and Jaaji are also accomplished musicians. He plays acoustic guitar, baritone guitar, floor stomp and harmonica; while she excels on the traditional hand drum and the haunting Native American flute, known as the spirit flute in Canada.
The duo writes most of their own music, which was on full display during the Canora concert. Their songs combine the languages of English, French and Inuktitut.
“Ancestry is a huge part of our music,” said Jaaji. “It’s who we are. We have a story to tell about where we come from. It’s not about being black or white, but being home, who you are. We shouldn’t be separated- by colour, class, religion and so on. My ancestors were not aware of barriers like that.”
The opening song of the Canora concert was So Qaigit, or Come Talk with Me. It’s all about the importance of communication, especially during this time of truth and reconciliation in Canada. Chelsey and Jaaji are strong believers in the importance of promoting good mental health, and doing their best to reverse the deadly trend of suicides in his homeland, and other parts of the country as well.
The second number, Plane Song, was written by Chelsey. It had a catchy sing-along section, including the phrase, “Be proud of who you are.”
“Unfortunately, because of residential schools, a lot of Indigenous people feel a loss of identity. For me, I’m proud of all the cultures that make up who I am,” she said.
One of the most memorable, and probably the saddest song of the evening was Porchlight, written about an experience in 2015. The duo met a man who asked if they would pose for a photo with him and his sister. But he only had an old photo of her, since she had been missing for over 20 years.
The lyrics to the song include:
“I leave the porchlight on, just in case.
“I call your name to this day, wish you were home beside me.”
The man explained that he takes his sister’s photo with him everywhere he goes to keep her memory alive, hoping that she’ll be found.
“Our way of processing this was to write this song,” said Chelsey. “We sent it out to this man to honour his sister’s memory, and he is now using it in his ongoing campaign to find her.”
Twin Flames music ranges from soulful ballads to the occasional up-tempo rock-influenced number, including Native by Nature, which emphasizes the importance of being proud of your heritage.
Nunaga, or My Home/My Land was written by Jaaji before meeting his future wife, and had significant success for him while he was a solo artist. However, hearing the song complete with their enchanting two-part harmonies, it was hard to imagine it being performed any other way.
Similar to almost every other musical act, they found it hard to cope in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. But they eventually came up with innovative ways to promote themes they are passionate about, including education and mental health, especially among young people.
“We were trying to finish an album at the time,” recalled Jaaji. “We found ways to make it work, got an arts council grant to build a home stage, did up to three shows online a day. It was a lot of fun. We provide music and culture to schools, which went nation-wide eventually.”
Before he decided to devote himself to music fulltime, Jaaji was a police officer. Some may find that an odd career move, but he said there is a significant similarity between the two.
“Policing and music are all about helping others. Unfortunately, politics got in the way of police work sometimes.”
The husband-and-wife duo feel rewarded that their work has had positive effects on the lives of listeners.
“People will tell us, ‘Your music saved my life.’ We really appreciate that,” said Jaaji. “I had a younger brother who gave up on life. The Arctic has the highest suicide rate in the world. We’re very passionate about reducing that, but we’re not miracle workers.”
He has a unique way of explaining the joy of performing for a live audience, and the energy that flows to and from the stage.
“It feels like we’re having a conversation with an old tree. The roots are there, it’s very peaceful. On stage, it’s like the wind blowing through the leaves and reaching the crowd. The relationship with the listener is uplifting, magical.”