Growing from a specialized publisher to a larger, curated catalogue that grows daily, Toronto-based Nagamo Publishing is filling a void. Its desire: to strengthen Indigenous representation in the film and television industry. So far, the upstart company – which has grown organically over the past year-and-a-half – is succeeding. And it shows no signs of slowing down.
Nagamo’s goals include providing Indigenous composers with opportunities to showcase their talent, as well as giving clients access to their music, which spans all genres and all First Nations. The roots of this venture were planted four years ago, when well-known publishing house Bedtracks’ president and co-founder Oliver Johnson created a production library of Indigenous music called Storytellers. In 2020, the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) acquired the organization, which has morphed into Nagamo Publishing.
“The original idea was to build a niche playlist of Indigenous production music to pass around to clients and producers,” explains Nigel Irwin, Nagamo’s co-Creative Director, and also one of its composers. “It was a great door for me to step into. At the time, I was making music, but I didn’t know much about production music… My role just grew organically.”
Until now, there was a lack of Indigenous production music easily accessible, and available, to which the screen industry could turn. According to Irwin, there are a couple of reasons for this untapped potential in the market.
“First, finding composers who are focused on production music is a very specific ask. Since most musicians go down the ‘artist’ route, the pool is already small,” he says. “Indigenous communities also feel like a small pool, but it’s growing fast; there’s just a bit of a disconnect when it comes to opportunity, and potential clients knowing what’s out there.”
Secondly, there was the challenge of Indigenous composers seeing the opportunity as well. Before joining Nagamo, Irwin worked as a facilitator for Indigenous youth programs, and travelled to reservations all across Canada. “I would meet tons of talented kids, but none of them had the mind-set that they could move off the reservation and find a job in this dynamic and cool industry,” he says. “Part of Nagamo’s mission statement is to wave the flag and tell these future composers, ‘There’s an opportunity here.’”
Thirdly, the Canadian music industry didn’t widely consider Indigenous representation before the new era of diversity, equity and inclusion mandates, which Irwin says ultimately is a good thing, allowing for “new people at the table.”
When it comes to Nagamo’s current catalogue, the roster is diverse. That, Irwin adds, is a big selling point. “The moment we tell them it’s Indigenous, there’s so much ground to cover,” he explains. “I like to compartmentalize our music into two broad categories: contemporary and traditional. For example, a Tribe Called Red did a lot for mainstream Indigenous exposure in the area of EDM/dance music, and that’s one style of music we carry in our catalogue.”
Nagamo offers something in many styles, to match any mood a film or TV production is after: from orchestral works and high-energy drum sounds that lend themselves well to epic scores, to acoustic music and traditional throat singers. Irwin name-drops a few of the artists with whom Nagamo is currently working: Jesse Doreen of Six Nations; Andrew Joseph Stevens III (a London, Ontario, based Mi’kmaw artist known on TikTok as Drives the Common Man); Mimi O’Bonsawin, a Métis artist with Abenaki roots; and Jacob Hoskins from Vancouver.
Irwin is also really excited about the recent signing of PJ Vegas — Nagamos’s first artist outside of Canada. Vegas is an award-winning singer-songwriter and trap-beat composer from Los Angeles, whose father Pat is a founding member of 1970s Indigenous American funk-pop band Redbone (best known for their hit song “Come and Get Your Love”).
When he’s not discovering new artists to add to the Nagamo roster (mostly via word-of-mouth these days), Irwin, who traces his indigenous heritage to the Enoch Cree Nation, still finds time to compose.
“As the face of the company my role is to curate and build, but I’m also given time to work on my own art, which is important,” he says. “I’ve got a few things lined up for shows coming soon on CBC’s The Nature of Things. It’s just so exciting… Everywhere we turn we get encouragement. People are really interested now in Nagamo.”