Imagine your friend is celebrity musician and host Art Napoleon, and he calls to ask you to cover for him as the master of ceremonies and VIP performer at a cultural event for the Aboriginal arts. What's a Juno-winning international blues star supposed to do? Of course Murray Porter said yes and started packing his piano for Prince George.
Porter plays the blues the way they were originally intended - as story salve for the wounds of life. The blues can convey all the emotions of the inner rainbow, but they sit down on a bench made of skilled musicianship and raw honesty. The great original masters from the dusty Mississippi and the dirty streets of St. Louis were performing as much for the audience of the soul as they were for paying customers.
These pioneers were under the boot of a ruling class who didn't care about their poverty or their strife. When you grow up a Mohawk child on the Six Nations Reserve of Ontario's Grand River Territory, you understand that spirit. You take it into your creative songwriter heart and your dedicated piano fingers all the way to concert halls and radios of the world, like Murray Porter did.
For the Aboriginal star of the Canadian stage, it all began on cold nights when the airwaves of Six Nations were crisp enough that songs could slide in from radio stations in Chicago and Detroit. One night he heard a tune called The Thrill Is Gone and the little Indigenous boy's thrill was ignited. He heard the deejay call that stuff a certain name so Porter clutched his nickels and dimes down to the record shop and focused on one section of vinyl, the one marked The Blues.
"I bought all the blues records I could afford," he said.
He was learning music and that style became his go-to genre. He started to seek out performers and found one Canadian act not too far away from his home on the reservation - The Downchild Blues Band "and we became close friends," he said emotionally.
He found others to feed his blues fire with as well, even closer to home. He got to spend time with a fellow Mohawk-Canadian who was already a superstar south of the border.
"I had Robbie Robertson and all kinds of people to look up to," Porter said. "Robbie's been to my house. I was able to connect with these people on a personal level."
Now he wants to be that trail guide now that he has been to musical heights himself. He has performed from D.C. to the D.R. (Washington to the Dominican Republic), from K'san to Kahnawake. He has shared the same audience with Sam 'Soul Man' Moore (twice), The Neville Brothers, Tom Cochrane, Marcia Ball, Buffy Ste. Marie, and many others.
The two top collaborations, though, happened on the same night. He was performing a show at the Tulalip Casino north of Seattle when he got word that the mainstage double-bill needed an opening act. Would he be willing to warm up the crowd for B.B. King and Etta James?
"He was the nicest man that I've ever met. Like a grandfather. A wonderful, happy, beautiful man," said Porter of King, who did the most famous version of all of The Thrill Is Gone.
James was different, though, he said, then grinned like a child.
Porter spotted the famed matriarch of the blues sitting alone in her trailer, so he cinched up the nerve to knock. When he explained he was the opening act that night, a Mohawk blues player from Canada, she suddenly threw the door open.
"She said 'wait a minute. You're native?' and stuck out her hand," he said. "I thought she was going to shake my hand but she pulled me onto her lap and she gave me a big, red-lipstick kiss on my cheek and she said 'us brown people gotta stick together.' And I went floating out of the trailer on wings of Etta's lips. I couldn't believe it."
Blues players always mark themselves by their level of authenticity. It's almost impossible to convey the blues if you haven't lived them. For Porter, that wasn't hard to coax out of his personal experiences. He talked about how he and his brother played hockey as children but couldn't be on the ice at the same time because they could only afford one pair of gloves, so they swapped every shift.
Once, as he skated on the ice of the Waterford Arena, one of the white people standing alongside the boards spit on him through the chicken wire puck barrier. The fan called him "a dirty Indian" which ripped his little child's heart. His coach could do little more than tell him he was smarter than someone so ignorant, so he didn't have to feel bad about someone else's idiocy.
That and a lot of other Aboriginal reality formed his intelligence and came out through his pen. The piano he played was all blues, but the lyrics were all shades of red, cultural and emotional.
He used humour a lot. He titled one of his albums 1492 Who Found Who, he has a peppy tune called Rez Bluez, and he laughed about how "I'm a red man, singing the black man's blues, living in the white man's world."
He tries to avoid soapboxes, he said, but when you listen to a song like Is Sorry Enough? there is no doubt that it's an ode to residential school atrocities, Same Canoe is a multicultural boogie, and Don't Let Go is cry for help for those considering suicide (Aboriginal communities are over-victimized by this).
"My job is to educate and make sure to give my people heart, pride, don't feel like you're less than. You are never less than anybody," Porter said, and that is the big-voiced, open-hearted basis for his international career. He brought that to Prince George as one of the guest hosts at the Lheidli T'enneh Pavilion during the 2015 Canada Winter Games and he brings it back Saturday night for the fourth annual Ying'hentzit Art Gala in support of arts scholarships and other cultural programming by Carrier Sekani Family Services.
"We're trying to raise money for a younger generation, so they can do what I do. So they can be artists and musicians and writers and poets, because that's what we need," Porter said. "Like Louis Riel said, the time will come when it's the artists that will bring us back. And I do believe that is the truth. I don't sing la-la-la-la-la-la-la, I sing about our people and their struggles. I try to educate non-Indigenous people and empower our Indigenous people at the same time."
Tickets are available via the Central Interior Tickets website. The evening features a banquet, silent auction, live art auction, live painting by local art star Carla Joseph, a dance with the band Vagabond, and other forms of entertainment and fun.