What does a board from the school Louis Riel attended, Sudbury ingots, Pierre Burton’s bowtie and the Trailer Park Boys have in common?
Not sure? Need more clues? How about adding Wayne Gretzky, a Japanese-Canadian baseball team, The Hoito, a muskox horn and a Scottish-born Canadian singer-songwriter?
The answer, in case you didn’t get it, is a guitar and a musician named David Leask.
First, let’s talk about that guitar known as Canada’s most historical instrument.
Made by Jowi Taylor and finished in 2006, the guitar nicknamed ‘Voyageur’ and its strap and case are a tribute to Canada; but more than that, it is a tribute to actual Canada, not the one that the world prefers to see us as.
Jowi Taylor is a radio broadcaster, producer, writer and host, and best known for his program on CBC Radio called Global Village, which ran from 1997 to 2007. He also hosted and co-produced several multi-part series about music, and has received many awards for radio.
And it was at a Harbourfront Centre Festival in Toronto where David Leask was transfixed by the story of the guitar, and Taylor’s passion for its creation. You see, Taylor disliked that Canada’s identity in the global sphere was often simplistic, stereotypical, glossing over the elements that don’t meet the ‘we’re nice and we’re sorry’ mentality.
He didn’t want to be known as the home of Tim Hortons; he wanted to show Canada: true north strong, free, flawed and complex.
And that is why you will find Louis Riel’s schoolhouse board on the guitar, directly across from the wood from Sir John A. Macdonald’s sideboard. You’ll find more on their story here.
It also contains tributes to the first peoples of this land. A buffalo skull – the symbol of the Blood Tribe – carved in Ammonite, the official gemstone of Alberta is inlaid on the back. An Inuit ulu graces the neck: in Inuktitut ‘ulu’ means ‘women’s knife,’ and is traditionally used for domestic tasks.
The guitar’s case features braided sweet grass and a Gwich’in Elder Eagle feather from William Greenland, a musician and director of radio for CKCB Yellowknife. A Mi’kmaq treasure circles the strap post – but probably not what you’re expecting. Instead, it is from the oyster shucking knife of Joe Labobe, who was entered in a competition somewhat begrudgingly, and ended up being the Canadian oyster-shucking champion for the years 1974, and 1975. He then travelled to Galway, Ireland, and was runner-up at the world championships in 1975.
If this story is one you’d love to hear more of, then the next part of the opening riddle is for you: David Leask’s new album, Voyageur in Song. and one of the songs featured on it “The Legend of Joe Labobe.”
You see, when Leask first heard the tale of Taylor and Voyageur, he was inspired. As a prolific and successful songwriter, he was hosting a songwriting workshop that happened to coincide with Taylor’s. The two men bumped into each other several more times that day, said Leask, and each time, he was more interested not just in the story of the guitar, but the urge to play it.
“I bumped into him again and I would say, ‘You know, I think someone should really write songs about these stories.” After some prodding, Taylor agreed. Or what Leask describes as “he succumbed.”
That was in 2016. In September 2020, the finished album, Voyageur in Song, featuring the six songs Leask composed with Voyageur, was released.
And the choice of the word ‘with’ in that sentence is intentional, for Leask truly feels that he and the guitar are partners in the music they create.
“I’ve done a lot of collaborations,” he said, “with well over a hundred writers. It was almost like sitting down with this collaborator that had this almost talismanic power – kind of revered. And so I made a pact with the guitar that whatever came out of it would be a song.”
The songs featured on the album offer background to the stories told on the guitar itself, with Leask’s passion for storytelling filling in the gaps of history that have been lost to many. And though there is no story song to go with the ore from Sudbury’s mines that is inlaid on the lower fretboard, they in essence were a part of every one; and as Leask notes, if you check the front cover, they are featured at centre of the image.
And it is not just the unique and separate aspects of Voyageur that make it special; like Canada, it is greater than the sum of its parts. And while Leask says the sound and playing of the guitar can’t be compared to more classical guitars like a Martin, it’s the combination of Wayne Gretzky’s hockey stick, Pierre Trudeau’s paddle, a walrus tusk, mammoth and mastodon ivory, a moose chin, a soup paddle from the Hoito, and wood from James Naismith’s house. Yes, the basketball king of Canadian Heritage Minutes. (Shout out to everyone who just said ‘but I need these baskets back!’)
And it is not only these sounds that come together as the guitar backing for every song on the album, but also, the lady Voyageur is the only instrument featured on the song “Les Chanson du Voyageur.” Not because it is acoustic, but because every musician played on the guitar in the style of their own instrument. For instance, the drum sounds are the result of jazz brushes providing the backbone of the song, on the back of the guitar.
The album itself is available through iTunes or through Leak’s website. But if you are a fan of streaming music from places like Spotify because it suits your lifestyle, but hate that you can’t support the artist at the same time, Leask notes that in the time of a pandemic, where no live gigs can be played, a donation directly to the artist, regardless of the amount, would go a long way.
And as far as how a Scottish born singer-songwriter, who still speaks with the dulcet tones of the accent, can compose possibly the most Canadian album on Canada’s most historic instrument? Well, it may be something that happened during the creation of the album.
“For many years, I was more Scottish than Canadian,” he said. “But by the end of the project, I’ve now lived in Canada longer than I’ve lived in Scotland.”
In addition to telling the stories of Canada, both light and dark, Leask hopes that other artists will be intrigued by Voyageur, and Jowi Taylor, the way he was.
“Jowi Taylor’s storytelling, his art, his creation — it inspired my art,” Leask said. “And I really hope that people listen to the songs and that they might pick up a paintbrush or a guitar or something creative. I feel that this storytelling energy can continue to be passed along.”
Jenny Lamothe is a Local Journalism Reporter at Sudbury.com, covering issues in the Black, immigrant and Francophone communities. She is also a freelance writer and voice actor. Contact her through her website, JennyLamothe.com.