The debut album from the Toronto-based Oji-Cree singer-songwriter Evan Pang—aka Aysanabee—opens with the voice of an elderly man reciting words that will instantly strike a grim chord with anyone who has a passing knowledge of Canadian/Indigenous relations: “I was eight years old when I went to residential school.” The voice belongs to Pang’s grandfather, Watin, and the story he tells is all too familiar among survivors of Canada’s infamous residential-school system for Indigenous children: one of a kid torn away from his family, forced to suppress his culture to a church-run curriculum, and subjected to ridicule and abuse at the hands of his supposed educators. But the school was also the place where Watin met the love of his life, who instilled in him the will to endure the trauma. Pang didn’t intentionally set out to make an album inspired by his grandfather’s stories. The conversations that preface each song on Watin began as check-in phone calls during the early stages of the pandemic, before blossoming into deeper discussions of family history. “And then, one day, I was listening back to the interviews while I was noodling on guitar, and I just wrote a song in response,” he tells Apple Music. “And that song turned into multiple songs.” Here, he provides us with track-by-track background on the stories of Watin. “Seeseepano” “This was the song that started the writing process for the record. My grandfather was telling me about his dad, Seeseepano, and then I asked him what his dad’s name meant, and he didn’t know. And it wasn’t that he forgot—he was taken away as a child before he could learn something as simple as what his father’s name meant. That really hit me in a certain way, and I just ended up writing a song, almost in a call-and-response kind of way. That’s a lot of how this album ended up developing: there would be bits of the conversation, which would be the call, and then the response would be the song that follows.” “Bringing the Fire” “In the interlude that comes before this, my grandfather is talking about how he’d tell the other kids in the school, ‘We’re not allowed to speak our language around the nuns or the priests, otherwise we’re gonna get in trouble. But we got to keep our language—we got to make sure that we don’t lose ourselves.’ There was kind of this defiance to not completely lose their culture and lose their sense of selves. But later in life, my grandfather became a deacon, and I had mixed feelings about it: I was happy that this was something he wanted to do, but I almost felt like something was being lost. I saw this parallel between him being a young person and explaining to these kids not to lose themselves, and then finding myself in this position where I felt like something was being lost. But this is a triumphant song. They tried to erase these parts of us, but we still kept them alive in ourselves.” “Long Gone” “My grandfather met my grandmother in residential school, and he ended up falling in love with her over the course of those 11 years. I think finding love there definitely helped him get through it. ‘Long Gone’ is about finding the light in this dark place. My grandfather actually stayed a little longer at the school than he had to—my grandmother was a couple of years younger than him, so he took a job there and waited for her to finish.” “War Cry” “This song is like a coming-of-age story. My grandfather was taken as a kid and had to learn how to become a man. And after falling in love with my grandmother, he had to choose between going back to his family or starting a new life with my grandmother. So, he chose to start a new life. That school took so much away from him—the sense of family, the foundation, his culture, his teachings, and everything that made him Oji-Cree. So, he had to learn how to build his own home and make his own way.” “Here I Am” “Residential schools were sold with the idea of ‘We’re going to educate the Native people so they can get jobs and integrate into society!’ Obviously, it wasn’t that; all the truth is coming out now. My grandfather only got a grade-four education. And because he wasn’t good at math, they ended up taking him out of school altogether and just had him do hard labor instead. So, he’d be working in the fields and picking vegetables, chopping wood, and doing road maintenance—not quite the education they promised. He was sold this idea of the school and didn’t get any of it and had to do everything himself anyways. So, this song is kind of saying, ‘Yeah, here I am—thanks for nothing!’” “Bones” “‘Bones’ started out as a kind of love song and then evolved from there. The lyric that sticks out to me is the one about believing your words before you shout them out. And that’s kind of a reflection on Canada as a whole. I remember growing up being proud to be a part of Canada, and the idea that Canada was this melting pot of religion and culture, where everyone gets a shot. But there’s this hidden history of intolerance that the government tried to keep quiet. There’s that old [Sir John A. Macdonald] quote about how [residential schools] would ‘take the savage out of the child’—that doesn’t quite speak to a melting pot. So, this is a song of reflection and making sure you own your history and you own your truth before you say otherwise.” “River” “My grandparents didn’t know how to be together—they were still kids themselves, trying to figure out how to stay together. And since they grew up in a school with Christian teachings, I guess they decided getting pregnant was the only way they could stay together: ‘All right, now they’re gonna have to marry us!’ So, they found a way to make it work.” “We Were Here” “My grandfather’s health wasn’t so good, and a lot of these memories were starting to get really fragmented. I was trying to record this little bit of history before it was completely gone. So, ‘We Were Here’ is kind of the crux of the album, of just recording this little bit of history of this Oji-Cree family on this vast continent. My grandfather already had so much taken away, and so I was just trying to save a little bit of him in this record.” “Ego Death” "This is one song where I lean more into where I was at and how I was feeling. Reconnecting has always been a big thing for me, and to go to this place with my grandfather and finally share these burdens with him and these stories, I guess I felt the closest feeling to regret I’ve ever had. I had all this time to talk with him, but it took a pandemic for us to find the time to just sit and speak. And although I was able to record some of these stories, there’s still so much of it that was forgotten. I was happy I was able to get a piece of it and learn more about him and grow from it, but I wish I had spent the time sooner.” “Nomads” “This song is somewhat melancholic, but it still has this triumphant feeling to it. And that’s kind of where I was when I was finishing the album. Just being able to record these stories, it felt like something’s been saved. But the opening lyric is ‘Where do we go from here?’—and I still don’t know! I’m happy that we made this record, and ‘Nomads’ was the perfect way to end it, with this big, bombastic finale. And we end it with my grandfather’s voice saying his name, Watin, which creates some interesting parallels between both of our stories as well. I didn’t even know my grandfather’s name was Watin—on paper, he’s Walter. When he went to residential school, they asked him his name, and he said, ‘Watin,’ and they were like, ‘OK, you’re going to go by Walter now.’ And I go by Aysanabee now. That’s my family name, which my mother changed when I was born because she thought it’d be easier if Aysanabee wasn’t on résumés and stuff. So, the parallels between us are pretty significant.”


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