Leela Gilday on set for her Messiah/Complex video shoot just outside of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. Photo by Amos Scott.
Dene singer-songwriter Leela Gilday is a Juno Award-winning musician who has toured nationally and internationally. Based in the Northwest Territories, she is one of 12 soloists from every province and territory in Canada performing in Against the Grain Theatre’s Messiah/Complex, in partnership with the TSO. Here, she takes the time to share some of her experiences from working on this reimagining of Handel’s enduring classic.

“When Joel [Ivany] approached me about this project, I was intrigued. I like the approach he takes to facilitating meaningful interactions in the arts, always finding substantive ways to shine a spotlight and uplift voices that are commonly shuffled to the margins. This production gave me the opportunity to take part in a pan-national collaboration, allowing me to make Handel’s piece my own in the truest sense,” said Gilday.

Photo by Pat Kane.

“I rewrote the English lyrics to reflect my own spiritual beliefs. I’m not Christian, but I wanted to embrace the heart of the message from this portion of Messiah—I Know That My Redeemer Liveth. In my interpretation, I talk about the spirit of the land, the water and the earth— the whole world,” she explained. “And then I speak about transformation. When you pass away, your spirit transforms— I believe in the Creator, and that when you pass away, you join the Creator.”

“For the actual translation, I sat down with my mom, and a few of my aunties,” Gilday recalls. “I don’t speak my language, but I am a language-learner. Together, my family collectively helped me to translate this new version of text into Dene ke. Then I put these new Dene words to Handel’s melody. This was really challenging work, and pushed me to my creative edge. Doing language reclamation work is a part of my personal and artistic journey.”

“My dear friend Amos Scott is an amazing Tli Cho Dene filmmaker, and for the Messiah / Complex film shoot we drove out of Yellowknife about 45 minutes on Highway 3, and chose some land where we set up a bush-tent,” Gilday remembers. “The theme we focused on was the idea of transformation— and the connection to the land. So, you’ll see in the film that we’ve built our bush-tent, and I’m feeding the fire, reflecting and giving thanks to the Creator, and to the power of transformation.” 

On set for her Messiah/Complex video shoot just outside of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories.

“I studied opera in university, but I went another direction, and chose to explore song-writing instead of opera,” she said. “It was the art form I was drawn to, and it allowed me to tell authentic northern, Dene, and women’s stories. Now, I have the chance to circle back to an art form that I love, for the first time in many years. This creative process really pushed my artistic and spiritual boundaries.” 

Thank you to Leela Gilday for contributing her artistic voice and being a part of this project. Leela’s performance has generously been supported by Debbie DeLancey.


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