The creative process behind Zhawenim, the fourth album from JUNO Award-winning Indigenous husband-and-wife duo Digging Roots, is a compelling blend of the ancient and the contemporary. Singer-songwriters Raven Kanatakta and Shoshona Kish recruited Hill Kourkoutis, recent JUNO winner as Producer of the Year, to co-produce the album with them, as well as co-writing two songs, and playing multiple instruments.

“We had some ideas about growing the sound, and Hill was the perfect person to have on board to help us realize that vision,” says Kish. “When you’re into a journey like Raven and I, then I think the objectivity and clarity an outside person can bring is important.”

The recent single “Skoden” brought Digging Roots their first rock radio airplay, while other tunes continue the group’s tradition of drawing upon such diverse elements as folk, blues, soul, psychedelia, and their Anishinaabe roots.

“Folks have always struggled to put a label on our music,” says Kish. “I’m actually happy it’s undefinable. We seem to be moving to the beat of our own drum, in the sense it’s not exactly this or that. It feels authentic and right for us.” When pressed, Kanatakta comes up with “heartbeat music that carries sweet medicine” as a defining phrase.

In creating the material that appears on Zhawenim (the Ojibway Anishnaabemowiin word for “unconditional love”) Kanatakta and Kish drew upon the tradition of Anishinabek Songlines, one that uses the landscape to inspire music.

“We’ve been using Songlines for a long time,” says Kanatakta.” It started when Shoshona’s great aunt came over and told us about her residential school experience. She also talked about how we used to traditionally write music, which was following Songlines that follow the contours of the land.

“As a result, we have songs that come from specific geographical places. Sometimes I’ll just be looking at pictures of skylines and mountain ranges, as references to come up with a melodic idea. At one point our entire living and dining room were covered with six-foot to nine-foot landscapes that I had photoshopped!”

A work of many healing hands

A key track on Zhawenim is “The Healer,” a song with a message of universal love, featuring an all-star cast of Serena Ryder, Shakura S’aida, Alana Bridgewater, Amanda Rheaume, Kinnie Starr (co-producer of Digging Roots’ JUNO-winning We Are album), and Hill Kourkoutis. “That was an incredible experience,” says Kish. “It’s an ongoing learning journey to create voices with people who are so incredibly talented. We have the joy of working with Alana in our band on the road, and I’m just so honoured she’s chosen to support the work we’re doing.”

The songs on Zhawenim tackle such themes as Indigenous identity, climate change, and the residential schools tragedy. The latter topic is addressed on “Cut My Hair,” long a staple of the group’s live show, but only now captured on record. “We actually recorded it seven times before, but it needed to come out at the right time,” says Kanaktaka. “The song told us to wait until it needed to be born, and that came with the number of children being found. I believe songs have spirits and when you play them those spirits come alive.”

Digging Roots take pride in the increasing recognition of the Indigenous artists now creating vibrant work. “It is very exciting to witness and be a part of this groundswell,” says Kish. “I see the brilliance, innovation, and creativity coming out, first-hand, every day, and I feel really grateful to have access to that bottomless well of inspiration.

“Music really is a healing force, a medicine in our community. I feel honoured to be part of a songwriting team that’s talking about what’s happening around us.”

Beyond her own work in Digging Roots, Kish is now contributing to this groundswell as co-founder (alongside fellow Indigenous roots artist Amanda Rheaume) of new record label Ishkode, currently home to Rheaume, Digging Roots, Morgan Toney, and Aysanabee.


Xela Edna and Eius Echo have known each other for a very long time. Partners in crime since childhood – they were on the same speed skating team – they lost sight of each other, then found each other again to pool their energy. But this time in a creative way, rather than a sporting way. Musically, they combine their talents to create atmospheres that push us to dance, and get rid of anything that prevents us from feeling pure and simple well-being.

Xela Edna, Eius Echo

Photo: Maryse Boyce/Francouvertes

“High-level sport is addictive,” says Eius Echo, adamant that musical performance has most certainly taken the place of sports performance in their lives. “We needed to go as far from sports as we could,” says Xela Edna. “Instead of going around in circles doing something physical and automatic, we found ourselves in musical performance.” His stage partner agrees: “We clearly took a lot of characteristics from sports and applied them to music: perseverance, giving it everything you’ve got…”

Recognizing each other as creative people by nature, they saw in music a practical path to convey both political and philosophical ideas. “We needed to find a different way of coping with life,” says Edna. “Sports and music are two highly therapeutic ways of getting rid of negativity.”

Before collaborating with Echo, Edna wrote in English. He delved into languid hip-hop that flirted with R&B and soul. “Our process has evolved,” continues Echo. “But it’s always been that I create a beat, she writes based on it, and then we record it. Nowadays, it’s more complex and there are more layers. She often brings complete song demos to the table.” They both enjoy being involved in each other’s creative process. “I’ll be on my own writing in a poetic frame of mind, and Eius Echo gives me beats, or themes. Increasingly, we create demos on our own, and then we work on them together.”

It’s the fusion of their talents that led Edna to sing in French. “Eius pushed me in that direction,” she remembers. “But I couldn’t find my own sound and I didn’t like how my voice sounded in French. In the end, we tried something that closer to French spoken word over electronic beats, and ended up with what we’re doing now.”

From the very inception of their musical union, they’ve sought to give their audience a unique stage experience. “It was always our goal,” Echo insists. “It’s ambient and laid-back, and aggressive at the same time. We had all kinds of beats and wanted to tell a story, to have a storyline. When we started, we knew what we wanted to achieve, but we didn’t know how, and didn’t have the means to do it. We pooled our ideas through studies and experience.” Writing in French has allowed Edna to get closer to her truth, and Echo’s learned all the techniques that now allow them to produce their unique sound.

“Just by sitting next to him, I ended up understanding how it all works,” Edna continues. “I installed that software on my computer and learned by watching. I’ve always composed by singing and playing the piano. It’s more inspiring and original to start with melodies that way.” Although she’s tried working with other producers, it was alongside Echo that she understood that the passion that drives him is a catalyst for her own talent.

The result can clearly be seen when they’re onstage: what we witness is a multi-faceted performance with meticulous attention to detail. “We want to make a physical demonstration, to feel alive,” says Edna. “There’s nothing more insignificant nowadays than releasing a song on Internet,” Echo adds. “The experience needs to be bigger than that.”

Following three EPs, the duo is now working on their first full-length album, slated for 2023. “We’re seeking eccentricity,” says Edna. “It’s our source of inspiration. Even if we’re doing experimental electronic music, we find inspiration in the work of Klô Pelgag, Hubert Lenoir, and all those artists who know how to do unique things without limitations.”


WesliIn early July, during the Montréal Jazz Fest, Wesli released his sixth album Tradisyon, an ode to his Haitian roots, and the forgotten parts of his native culture. Established in Montréal for many, many years, Wesley Louissaint has constructed 19 songs that sound like tributes to, and nostalgic fragments of, an island that has lost the means to develop its art to full potential.

“Haiti has undergone a lot of cultural change, influenced by American culture,” says Wesli. “The geographical situation of the country, coupled with an economy that doesn’t work, has swallowed our roots and our Francophonie as well.”

The birth of the Tradisyon is at the heart of these roots. It draws from the depths of a nation that is a victim of its own misfortunes, and a culture that should not “die from that.” “Haiti is unable to feed its people and over the years, bad luck and natural disasters have weakened us culturally. We didn’t take what our ancestors left us seriously,” says Wesli.

The artist worked like a monk as he dug deep to safeguard every bit of endangered Haitian musical culture. “I want to inspire this vision, this motivation to re-connect Haitians with their roots, and remind them of what they used to know,” says Wesli.

On July 19, 2022, he plays these new songs during the Nuits d’Afrique Festival in Montréal. “During this show, you’ll meet the songs from my new album with even deeper roots into Haitian music,” says Wesli. “I’ll also play songs from all my other albums, so as to not ‘lose’ the people who’ve supported me for a long time.” Running until July 24, 2022, the festival showcases the deep pride of all African-rooted forms of music. “Without an event like this one, Montréal wouldn’t know all the musical culture that the rest of the world has to offer,” says Wesli.

Tradisyon will therefore be presented in its entirety, and “in real life,” so that the collective Haitian memory resonates across borders. “[Creating] this album was quite a huge process, because my starting point is lost rhythms,” says Wesli. “Haitians have lost their Creole roots. I pay homage to Azor Rasin Mapou [on ‘Samba’], to Wawa Rasin Ganga [on ‘Wawa Sé Rèl O’] and to Éric Charles as well [on ‘Konté M Rakonté’], a tenor of troubadour music. I could see that I would need more than one album to go deep into my subject,” he says with a laugh.

Wesli unflinchingly accepts the duty of transmission that has become a quasi-mantra for him. He envisions the richness of the music< and the possibility of sharing it by through the amalgamation of folk and modern sounds. Yet, to him, this is obvious. “Musical influences are naturally permeable,” he says. “There’s no musician who can make [different] music compatible. All music shares a common soul that allows it to communicate. I want to recognize and listen to this soul, so that I can share it in my own music.”

For Wesli, music thus carries within it a universal soul that has no language, nationality. or pre-determined instrument. It’s just bigger than all of that.

“I had no choice but to leave Haiti to be able to speak about her,” he says. “I’m in the ideal situation, here in Canada, to shine a light of the roots of my homeland. If I was still over there, I simply would not have the financial means to carry out this mission. Promoting our artistic values requires a certain level of financial ease. Living in Haiti is an exercise in survival. People there do not see what has been lost and needs to be safeguarded.”

He sees his life here as a unique opportunity to share his nostalgia. “Of course we feel guilty for having access to all kinds of opportunities,” he says. “We also know we wouldn’t fare any better than our peers if we were still over there. The whole idea is to take advantage of the possibilities we get, to shine a light on the place we’re from.”

Wesli’s research has led him to so many discoveries that a single album couldn’t cover it all. So his seventh album, Tradisyon 2, is slated for release in September of 2022. “I would have to make five or six albums to showcase Haitians’ values the way I see them. I want to tell the youth they should play these rhythms our ancestors have bequeathed us. In Haiti, of course, the values of servitude were taken from Africa to the colonies, but our generosity, the social aspect, the hope of our nation, and so many other things must continue to live through culture.”