A guitar, harmonica and foot drum—somehow Willie Thrasher plays all three at once to produce lively and multilayered folk melodies.
Last Wednesday, donning a cowboy hat and Rolling Stones T-shirt, Canadian Inuit musician Willie Thrasher performed in Jack Magee’s Pub and Grill for an audience of students and Brunswick locals. His visit was part of the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum’s Environmental and Social Justice Lecture Series and coincides with the museum’s exhibit on Inuit music, which has been on display since late March.
Thrasher’s musical style is in a league of its own, incorporating elements of both folk music and Inuit culture with emotional lyrics that attempt to encapsulate the heritage and history of his people.
Thrasher’s inspiration stems largely from the trauma that afflicted his childhood. At the age of five, he was taken from his home in Aklavik, Northwest Territories by missionaries and placed into one of Canada’s many residential boarding schools for indigenous children. There, Thrasher was banned from speaking his native language well into his teenage years.
“[The] missionaries were taught to pick different Indian and Inuit [customs] out of our system.” Thrasher said. “If we spoke our languages, [if] we spoke about the past or anything about our culture they’d condemn us and give us a strap and tell everybody that we’re devils. This is how we were grown up.”
In the mid-1960s, Thrasher entered the music scene as a drummer for the Inuit rock band The Cordells. But it wasn’t until a stranger approached the group and encouraged the members to pursue Inuit culture through music that Thrasher’s career was set in a new direction. He began talking with elders in his home community, learning new stories and translating their messages into song lyrics.
Thrasher has since made it his mission to travel and spread his culture through music. Thus far he has made it to several locations around Canada, the United States and even England, spending a large chunk of the past two decades onstage with his partner Linda Saddleback.
Thrasher’s music caught the eye of Arctic Museum Assistant Curator Michael Quigley towards the beginning of the year as he was curating the exhibit “A Resounding Beat: Music in the Inuit World.” He first heard Thrasher’s music five years ago on a compilation album of indigenous musicians and later reached out to ask permission to use his music in the exhibit.
“It took a little while to track him down, but then I finally did,” Quigley said. “He was super supportive of it, and he actually suggested coming out here to play a show.”
In the dim-lit setting of the Pub, Thrasher played a set list that ranged greatly in theme and tone. He reflected on the environment, his family and time in residential school. He interspersed personal dialogue with his music, speaking on the hardships which have affected his family, the devastation of climate change in his home community and his relationship with his grandfather as a young child.
It was clear that Wednesday night’s performance was marked by a somewhat somber mood. Saddleback, Thrasher’s partner, was denied entry into the U.S. at the Canadian border and was forced to return home. It was the first time in many years that Thrasher performed solo.
“The Northern Lights were still shining, the stories were still being told, the songs were being sung, you know, and the questions were being asked,” said Thrasher. “But something very special was missing that was very close to my heart, and it was her.”
Despite this setback, Thrasher had an eventful few days on campus. He visited classes and spoke with students in a more personal setting to share stories of his cultural background.
Thrasher was struck by the engaging nature of this dialogue and the honesty and curiosity of those he spoke with.
“They were so overwhelmed by how we live,” he said. “The questions they asked me were really incredible, you know, about how do we build our igloos? How do we live off the land? And how can you handle 31 below everyday for 10 months? … You know, that kind of life.”
Although Thrasher’s time on campus was limited, the conversations he ignited and understanding he raised through his musical storytelling are sure to leave a profound and long-lasting impact.