Make no mistake, the headliner brought the crowd out on this crisp winter day at Toronto’s historic Opera House. Even acts two and three on the four-band bill are fairly well known. It’s the first act that’s a bit of a wild card — not quite a name, but generating a buzz the fans can’t ignore.
“Who is this guy? I’ve been hearing him on radio,” asks a young woman standing in line.
While they may not know much about him now, that will change.
Indeed, since launching his debut album last November, the career trajectory of Evan Pang, the Oji-Cree artist who goes by the stage name Aysanabee, has been stratospheric. So much so that his label and management team are now having to figure out how to handle the torrent of requests for him to appear at concerts and festivals.
“I feel like there’s a je ne sais quoi kind of magic,” says Ishkōdé records co-founder ShoShona Kish. “You know, it’s that magical, unnamable thing that some artists have. And that’s what Evan has.”
Evan wrote the album during the pandemic after a series of conversations with his grandfather, Watin, after whom the album is named. Excerpts of those recordings, in which his grandfather opened up about his experiences in residential schools, were used in his songs and became the backbone of the album.
But it’s Aysanabee’s soaring and powerful vocals that are turning heads. He’s nominated for his first Juno Award for Contemporary Indigenous Artist of the Year. And he’s also playing live during the ceremony in Edmonton on Monday night. It’s quite a moment for this new artist.
And yet, as exciting as Aysanabee’s future appears to be, it didn’t happen without a lot of luck and perseverance. He moved from the isolation of Northern Ontario to the chaos of Toronto, spurred on by a near-death experience and a fateful gamble on an obscure cryptocurrency. Recounting his journey in his small living room he leans back, furrows his brow and slowly shakes his head.
His isn’t a linear story, nor one that’s easily forgotten. The only place for him to start is at the beginning.
Aysanabee is his family name. He’s Oji-Cree, Sucker Clan of Sandy Lake First Nation. The name “Evan Pang” was just a name his mother gave him. They lived in northwestern Ontario where, she knew all too well, it’s not always easy to overcome the preconceived stereotypes that come with being Indigenous.
“So when I was born my mother gave me the last name Pang,” he says. “Her last name is Aysanabee, but she thought it would make it easier in life for me if I just had an Asian name.”
And so life began for young Evan Pang.
They moved off the reserve when he was three and for time they lived in a house completely off the grid near Thunder Bay. With his mother working long hours to support the family, he and his brother were left with no other option than to find ways to entertain themselves. The boys loved music. When his brother eventually moved out, he left his guitar behind. And thus began Evan’s obsession with the six-string, which he practised for countless hours.
By 15, he was ready to stretch his wings so he moved into a house with other aspiring musicians. For a teenager, it was bliss. He’d work during the day to pay the rent and then play music late into the night.
Of course, it didn’t last. The party one night had just ended as the sun was coming up and he needed to get to work. But first, he needed a coffee.
“I went into the pantry and there was this guy in the corner and he was just kind of smoking a crack pipe,” he says. “And he was, like, ‘my lungs hurt.’ And I was just like, ‘I need to leave.’”
It was a smart choice. If he was going to lead a life filled with music, living in that house wasn’t going to get him any closer to his dream. But where would he go? He knew he had to figure that out, fast. Meantime, though, he had his job — spending weeks and even months out in the bush, often by himself. He brought books and his guitar to play at night.
And then, on one cold February day, everything in his life changed.
As he tells it, he was out by himself snowshoeing. The ice on the river he needed to cross looked thick enough but as he began walking the ice cracked and he fell through. The snowpants and snowshoes he was wearing to protect him against the cold of winter were now working against him. His pants soaked up the water and grew heavy while the current pulled against his snowshoes.
“So I know if I go under, I can’t swim [with the snowshoes],” he says. “And even if I could, who knows how thick the ice is, and I wouldn’t even be able to punch through it.”
All he had was a small axe he used to mark claims. He smashed it into the ice in the hope he could pull himself out but the ice kept breaking. As he desperately tried to get a grip, Evan had an epiphany. If he was about to die, he thought, what a shame he never got to live his dream.
“I was talking in my mind to a higher power, promising that if something, if the spirits come and help me through this moment, I’m going to go play music,” he says. “I’m going to do what I feel like is my calling.”
He managed to drag himself to the icy shore. He lit a fire to dry off before walking 13 kilometres back to camp, all the while thinking about that moment of clarity.
“I quit. I had a plane ticket and I was gone in three months.”
The dream was alive and well as his plane landed in Toronto, even if he was unclear how to make it a reality. So Evan did what he always did, and began working on plan B. He applied to college and was accepted into a trio of disparate programs — journalism, massage therapy and nursing.
He chose journalism and after graduating, began working at a Toronto TV station while living in a tiny downtown walkup.
When the pandemic hit, any momentum he had made in the music scene was gone. And for the first time, he began to consider music as possibly nothing more than a lifelong hobby. Just as Evan was convincing himself he could be happy with that, he came across an ad for The International Indigenous Music Summit. The “music could be a hobby” side of him balked at paying the $140 entrance fee.
But while Evan Pang may have been done with his dream, his dream wasn’t done with him.
He had been dabbling in cryptocurrencies with little luck and he only had $10 left in his exchange account. As longshots go, the little-known, yet hilariously named “Asscoin” was as long as they get. He made the play on a lark. What are the chances, right?
So he placed his bet and jumped on his bike for a long ride around Tommy Thompson Park. Halfway through, he stopped to see if his meagre investment had done anything. His eyes lit up.
Asscoin had jumped 2,800 per cent.
He sold half of it, letting the other half ride. By the time he got home, Asscoin’s value was in the toilet. But he had made enough to cover the Summit’s entrance fee.
Evan now jokes, “I owe my whole career to Asscoin!”
The video submission he produced was one of hundreds that ended up on the desk of summit co-founders and Amanda Rheaume and Shoshona Kish. It was a standout.
“We both were like who is this?” Rheaume recalls. “Wow, how have we never seen this or heard this before?”
“It just stopped us in our tracks,” Kish adds. “You know, it just had that quality of … it got me in my solar plexus, you know?”
And as it happens, they just happened to be looking for a musical gut punch.
The pair are musicians in their own right but had become disillusioned with the industry. Surely, they thought, they could do it better while offering a platform for Indigenous talent to shine. And thus, Ishkōdé Records, the first Indigenous female-owned record company in the country, was born.
“It’s really incredible to see the level of talent that isn’t being supported, that doesn’t have an industry push behind it, that aren’t getting the offers from all over the world,” Kish tells Global News. “We’re here to change that.”
Ishkōdé, which means fire in Ojibwe, was on the hunt for an artist with the potential to be its first signing. And there they were, looking at Aysanabee’s submission to the summit.
“It’s just been really special. And once in a while there is just an energy around an artist,” Rheaume says. “It just snowballed so quickly. And I imagine for him it’s been a little dizzying, because it’s just happened. It really is like one of these overnight things that’s happening for him, and it’s really exciting to be on that journey.”
Every artist needs that moment when the stars align. Voice and talent are one thing, but to connect with an audience, there has to be a story.
Despite Evan’s sudden good fortune, he was still looking for his voice. During the pandemic, his grandfather Watin, who was living in a northern Ontario long-term care home, began telling his grandson stories about growing up on the reserve and how he was forced into the residential school system.
With nothing more in mind than preserving Watin’s stories for posterity, he began recording the conversations.
During one call, Watin recounted the story for his grandson about the lone positive memory from those days: meeting the love of his life, Evan’s grandmother, which inspired the song River.
“She was the first one I met too, on the bus, I sat with her,” Watin told his grandson. “Nobody was sitting with her and that’s how we met.”
His breakout hit, Nomads, tells the story of his grandfather’s time at the McIntosh Residential School in northwestern Ontario where he was forced to change his name from Watin to Walter.
Another song is named after his great-grandfather, Seeseepano. “And I just remember asking (Watin), ‘What does Seeseepano mean?’” Aysanabee recalls. “And he didn’t know what his own father’s name meant. And not because he forgot. But because he went to school and got taken away before he was able to get to know his family. And that really struck me.”
He had found something to sing about that mattered to him. The album Watin was a tribute to his grandfather and his Indigenous roots, yet he had a growing sense of anxiety before it was released. How would the Indigenous community react to music about such a dark time in their history? As Evan says, “I’m telling my grandfather’s stories, but it isn’t just his experience.”
He needn’t have felt nervous. “There were multiple people who reached out and said ‘thank you for this,’” Evan reveals. “’We found it so healing. It’s so amazing that our stories are getting told by our people.’”
He and Watin still speak often. Watin, from his long-term care home, and Evan from wherever he is in the world. Around the time he finished the album, he rented a car and took his grandfather for a ride. As Aysanabee’s Nomads started playing, the voice track with Watin’s voice came through the speakers.
“And then he was kind of like, ‘Hmmmmm, I’m on the radio!?” the grandson recalls, with a huge smile. “And that was such a moment.”