of Leela Gilday
Mark Rendell

Heart of the People – A review of Leela Gilday’s newest record

“Feel my rage rush through my blood, lost from knowledge lost from love,” Leela Gilday sings on “Cut My Hair,” off her newest album There’s a snarl in her voice and fire in her belly.

“Lost, stolen, ripped, torn, beaten, raped, tossed, worn,” she intones over the guttural chants of Polaris-winning throat singer Tanya Tagaq.

Now here’s a formidable aboriginal woman pissed off at injustice and telling it like it is; here’s a powerful yet sensual voice blending pop, gut-punching rock n’ roll and traditional Dene songs.

It’s the fourth album by the Juno award-winning performer, and as with previous releases she plays the role of pop diva and northern storyteller with confidence and poise.

The record is an intriguing blend of pop, folk/country, and political protest songs. Gilday is best when she’s wearing her heart on her sleeve. “Bella,” a song dedicated to Bella Laboucan McLean who died in Toronto last year, is both a beautiful lament and a critique of the cynical politicians refusing an inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women.

When she sings “girl if I was writing you an end, you damn sure it’d be much better,” you can feel the pain and anger in her voice. But she ends on a hopeful note, “The truth shall be known. Our voices are not being heard, how can you say that we’re wrong. And we are only seeking justice.”

She’s most entertaining when telling stories. On “Cold Wind” she tells the story of a sled breaking down on a wintry night while returning from a hunt. In “Safe Passage” she recounts the legend of how the Deh Cho (Mackenzie) River was drawn to the sea, and what it means as the spiritual lifeblood of the Dene people.

Often the most emotionally potent moments, however, are wordless. In “Rescue,” a song nominally about children drowning in a boating accident – though rich with metaphorical overtones – Gilday chants like a grieving mother or a drowned ghost sinking deep into the frozen lake.

There’s no doubt Gilday has a phenomenal voice. Sometimes, though, she lets the diva get the better of her. There are moments, like at the end of “All Alone,” when she tries a few too many vocal pirouettes. Her voice sounds more confident on songs like “I Feel Stronger” when she goes lighter on the vibrato – it’s bold but still intimate and I’d be lying if I didn’t say the ballad made me want to slow dance with every girl I’ve ever loved.

There’s also a few narrow misses on the album. “Safe Passage” has some of the record’s most interesting musical moments, which makes the miss all the more unfortunate. It opens with a syncopated chant that unfurls over gorgeous sounding drums and a funky bass line. It turns the corner onto a big-chorded rock n’ roll vista… then comes shuddering to a halt and continues as a fairly generic country tune. It picks up again with the swelling harmonies of the chorus. But I can’t shake the feeling there are two different songs cohabiting the same four and a half minutes.

Likewise her poppier tunes, like “She Walks alone” or the last track “I am Free,” don’t quite do it. They’re perhaps more radio friendly – but you get the feeling they could have been written by any number of talented pop musicians; they lack the originality and heart that characterize the album’s better songs.

The record is slickly produced and features a wide range of instrumentation. The fiddle on tracks like “Cold Wind” and the organ on “All Alone” and “I Am Free” add a nice musical flare; the percussion is spot on throughout, with the Yellowknives Dene Drummers bringing the driving power of a drum dance to “Cold Wind.”

Heart of the People was released in the NWT last month and there will be launch concerts in in Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa on Oct 28-30.

 Leela Gilday performing “Cold Wind” at Mundial Montreal last year.