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Bluegrass virtuoso Mike Stevens taps the power of music in Canada's north

Editorial Staff

Written by Michael Morreale

Harmonica virtuoso Mike Stevens might have became a millionaire as a member of the Grand Ole Opry, until he discovered something more valuable 30 kilometres north of Goose Bay.

Mike Stevens is an unlikely star of the Grand Ole Opry. Before him, no petrochemical worker from Sarnia, Ont., had ever performed on country music’s most famous stage, and if one tried, travelling with a banjo, fiddle or a guitar would be the safest route. But Stevens plays the harmonica, and bluegrass doesn’t always make room for the harmonica.

Stevens made his first televised Grand Ole Opry appearance alongside Jim & Jesse, with the legendary Roy Acuff looking on.

Before long, those who were thinking that bluegrass didn’t need the harmonica were the ones buying Stevens’s CDs. Other harmonica players began appearing at the Opry — copying his playing style — and two of the biggest names in bluegrass, Roy Acuff and Bill Monroe, were among his biggest fans. Stevens became a regular on the Opry stage (he estimates it at 300 performances) and there was talk of becoming an Opry member, which would’ve made him a millionaire. He was even given the highest honour by the Kentucky government when he was named “Kentucky Colonel.” Life, in his own words, was “just beyond my wildest dreams.”

Then his life and career were turned upside down.

In the fall of 2000, Stevens was set to perform at a movie theatre in Goose Bay, N.L., on a tour that would also take him to Alert, Nunavut, and Bosnia to give shows for Canadian peacekeepers. As he always does, he picked up a newspaper in search of a local reference to slip into his onstage banter. Spread across the pages were shocking stories and photos of nearby Sheshatshiu (pronounced “SHESH-a-shee”), where a community was struggling with high suicide rates and gas sniffing among its children. He dedicated that night’s performance of “Amazing Grace” to the kids in the newspaper, which drew an uncomfortable and icy silence from the crowd. After the show, a journalist wanted to drive Stevens to Sheshatshiu to see the community with his own eyes.

“I felt like a creep if I had an opportunity to go and see it first-hand and didn’t take it,” Stevens explained. “It would become part of a show instead of being a human being trying to connect and figure it out.”

The next morning they drove 40 kilometres north-east along Lake Melville to the end of the road. Mounds of dirt with Catholic or indigenous memorials dotted the side of the road, most with kids’ toys resting on them, marking the spots where suicide and substance abuse had taken its toll.

“To be honest, I felt voyeuristic,” he said. “I knew I couldn’t walk away from this with just a story to bring home, I had to try and connect in some way.”

They arrived in Sheshatshiu and had just turned a corner at the community’s school when they saw a group of children and young teenagers holding green bags of gasoline over their mouths and noses. Stevens got out of the truck and did what came most naturally to him: he took out a harmonica and played “Amazing Grace.”

Stevens says he looked into their eyes as he played and saw joy. They laughed (“not because they were buzzed”) and asked about his family and where he was from. He played a few more tunes and left having learned more about music than his whole “big-shot” career before that.

“I learned what music’s for,” he said. “You work your ass off and you practise and you play. Sure you get gratification when the crowd stands up or buys your CDs, but it’s deeper than that.

“There has to be a reason that you make art and not move furniture. They taught me that the real purpose for music is to connect on some level.”

That connection resonated deeply with Stevens; he was changed by the encounter. After 45 minutes the gas fumes were burning his face and he developed a migraine that lasted for days. He promised to help, and his work began the very next day.

Shortly after arriving in Alert, Stevens got a phone call from CBC Radio’s As It Happens, who had been tipped off about the encounter by the journalist who drove him to Sheshatshiu. In an emotionally raw interview with Mary Lou Finlay, Stevens told his story. He sounded angry and profoundly affected by what he saw. In one off-the-cuff comment, Stevens asked Canadians to send him instruments that he could take up to Sheshatshiu.

Listen to an excerpt of Mike Stevens being interviewed by Mary Lou Finlay on CBC Radio’s As It Happens on Nov. 23, 2000. 

Over the next several weeks, Stevens’s house filled up with donated instruments (“from the basement to roof, literally”). He loaded a transport truck until it was almost entirely full and went back to Sheshatshiu to hand out the instruments and give a workshop.

“Eighty kids came running in and it was beautiful!” he exclaimed. In the chaos, a photocopier was kicked over and a window was knocked out. He loved every minute of it.

Stevens has been back to Sheshatshiu more than 30 times since then. Each time he brings more instruments and invites guests to lead workshops. The students grew to trust him for returning, unlike several other aid projects that stopped showing up when funding ran out.

The workshops incorporate Innu culture and use traditional knowledge from elders. Early in the lesson, Stevens asks kids to say their Innu names into the harmonica. Their next task is to play what a colour sounds like. It becomes their first composition.

In 2002, Stevens formalized his work under a charitable organization called ArtsCan Circle. It operates with no full-time staff or office and relies on mostly private donations, grants and fundraising house concerts. The organization’s biggest expense is travel. Today, ArtsCan Circle has expanded to several communities as far as Haida Gwaii, B.C., and Alaska, and has committed to visiting each community at least twice a year, giving workshops in visual art, puppetry, storytelling and, of course, music.

As internet connectivity improves in these remote areas, Stevens and ArtsCan Circle have installed recording studios in the communities. When they aren’t being used for workshops given remotely, elders and children use the microphones to record and preserve their stories.

For Stevens, it’s about so much more than simply teaching students about music.

“My biggest fear is that people think I’m going in trying to fix something,” he said. “It’s not that. I’m trying to build relationships and trust. The instruments are the gateway but it’s way deeper than that. That’s where the magic happens.”

Stevens still performs regularly, though many of his performances are fundraising concerts. He is considered one of the most technically gifted harmonica players in the world, and his virtuosic playing style is so forceful that he destroyed the valve that keeps food down. If he were to stand on his head, his stomach would empty itself. Playing the instrument has given him seven hernias.

It’s been nearly 15 years since that first trip to Sheshatshiu, and Stevens is still keen to expand. He promises that if the funding ever dries up (and it’s gotten close), he’ll continue to find a way to go north and use music to connect with the kids. You can hear the compassion in every word he says.

Follow Michael Morreale on Twitter: @18mrm