Choral maestro Andrew Balfour pursues his Indigenous identity through music

Carol Toller, The Globe and Mail

There are things you expect to hear from a classical-music composer like Andrew Balfour: that he grew up singing in a church choir. That he began playing an instrument at an early age – in his case, trumpet. That while other kids were grinding out guitar licks, miming Bruce Springsteen or David Bowie (he grew up in the 1970s), Balfour was air-conducting Beethoven.

Then there are the parts of Balfour’s life story that make eyes widen, as he talks, in even, measured tones, about being taken from his Cree mother when he was an infant in 1967, as part of the Sixties Scoop. Or when he tells you that he spent several years living in extreme poverty in downtown Winnipeg. Oh, and did he mention that he spent four months in prison?

Balfour shares these biographical details with shoulder-shrugging equanimity. They’ve all contributed to what he has become today: a highly sought-after composer who fuses classical-music tradition with Indigenous texts and themes to create works that range from shimmering soundscapes to unsettling sociopolitical commentary. One of his most arresting works, Take the Indian, features snippets of testimony from hearings conducted by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: “They took away my heritage, they talked of paradise with a whip, they came to me at night.” For a performance staged by Camerata Nova, the Winnipeg-based chamber choir that Balfour founded in 1996, the sopranos who sang those lines dressed in residential-school uniforms, while the tenors and basses wore black priests’ cassocks.

Toronto’s Tafelmusik and Mendelssohn choirs and the buzzy New York-based experimental ensemble Roomful of Teeth have all commissioned pieces from Balfour, and close to 20 groups across the country have performed his first published work, Ambe. The five-minute piece builds around a driving, rhythmic bass line that echoes the sound of a ceremonial drum – or, as Balfour has said, the heartbeat of Mother Earth – and projects a message of unity for all “two-legged beings.” The text is in Ojibway, and its energetic, welcoming message “seems to be something that people want to hear right now,” Balfour says.

It’s a far cry from Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus and the rest of the Western canon that dominates choral programming in North America. And for Canadian choir directors, that may be what’s most exciting about Balfour’s work. He’s drawing on his First Nations identity to nudge the Canadian classical-music scene out of its stodgy Eurocentric traditions.

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