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February 11, 2020

Since the Israeli-Canadian violist Rivka Golani first became aware of the Blackfoot – the First People of Canada – she has been inspired by their history. She has performed several concerts in their honour in Canada and has composed pieces, with their permission, that reference Blackfoot history and folklore. In this interview, which has their blessing, she tells of her history with the tribe.
Golani first met the Blackfoot face-to-face at one of their cultural centres in Buffalo Jump, Alberta, in 2008, having originally seen them in the nearby town of Macleod. She spent 13 years in university posts in Canada before moving to London in 1987 but often returns to the country, where she does regular tours.
Rivka Golani © Peter Beal
“Three elders came to the meeting, decorated with beads,” she recalls. “They looked amazing and took it very seriously. I explained that I was doing a festival of classical music and wanted to approach them as a Canadian and as a Jew. When I said ‘Jew’ there was a strange reaction, I didn’t know if I had said the wrong thing. I explained that I grew up in Israel without grandparents and very few aunts and uncles, and the only reason I could talk to them today was because my mother had gone to Palestine illegally. We had our Holocaust and I knew about their holocaust. I told them that when I travel I always feel a wall around me, and I understood they would feel the same when they left the province. I wanted to get round the wall with classical music. There was absolute silence. Then the elder said the doors were open.”
An oil painting by Rivka Golani of the late Joe Crowshoe, an Elder of the Blackfoot First Nations People of Alberta, Canada, 2014. On permanent display at the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, Alberta
In recognition of this unusual friendship, the Blackfoot have granted Golani the twin honour of an eagle feather and a Blackfoot name: The Woman Who Sings in the High Place. The story began in 2004 when she was on a tour with the Edmonton Philharmonic Orchestra and had some time off between concerts. She wanted to give something back to the rural communities of Canada, so she asked if there was a venue nearby. This led her to Fort Macleod’s Empress Theatre, where she performed and gave a viola masterclass. It was such a success that she suggested a festival to Theatre Director Gerard Gibbs. “He laughed,” she remembers. “Who would come? I told him I would bring my friends.”
True to her word, Golani enlisted the help of fellow musicians and the first Windy Mountain Music Festival was born. For the 2006 event, the organisers commissioned a new piece, ‘Bear Child’, based on a Blackfoot story as their reservation was close by. Honouring the Blackfoot experience became festival tradition; however, it was only after the Buffalo Jump meeting in 2008 that the Blackfoot themselves began to attend. Golani found them to be a unique audience. “When they’re watching, there’s something phenomenal in the air,” she says. “Whether you’re playing Stockhausen, Bach or Mozart, everything is new. They have no cultural history of this music. For them music is like ceremony and the style doesn’t matter. They listen differently.”
Rivka Golani with members of the Blackfoot First Nations People of Alberta, Canada, as guests of honour. 19 Feb 2016, London
The Blackfoot people’s approach to music has motivated Golani to find ways to reference tribal drumming when she’s composing, as that is their main form of musical creation. This February you can witness it for yourself when she brings the Blackfoot to London for a concert at the Old Royal Naval College. It’s supported by the charity Canada-UK Foundation and there will be 11 new works inspired by the Blackfoot, written by composers from the UK, Israel, Canada, Hungary and Spain. Six members of the Blackfoot nation will be present, including two elders.
The relationship that Golani has developed with the Blackfoot is powerful. She wants to share their story with the world and after the concert the audience is invited to meet the elders. There will be another event in Peckham for people to meet the Blackfoot. All this has come about through the power of music, an art form that seems unique in its ability to bring people together from all backgrounds. “There is no limit with music,” agrees The Woman Who Sings in the High Place. “There are no borders.”
By Peter Watts
A Gala Concert with Guests from the Blackfoot First Nation People of Alberta takes place Tuesday 18 February. 1pm. FREE. Old Royal Naval College Chapel, SE10 9NN. See the JR listings for info or contact
This article also appears in the Jan 2020 issue of JR.
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