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Voice leader

Anishinaabe musician, Lyz Jaakola, teaches people to bring out their voices

Lyz Jaakola, left, and four other members of the 15-member women’s hand-drum group, Oshkii Giizhik Singers.
Photo by Jan Willms


For years, Lyz Jaakola has watched her mother be a leader.

“She started out talking with kids about better choices, and she did intervention and prevention in schools before it was the thing to do,” Jaakola, a musician and teacher, noted. “Today, at 72, she is still working as a behavioral health department head at the Fond du Lac reservation clinic.”

Although her mother does not sing, Jaakola said she had been a great inspiration to her.

“She has received honors from Harvard and from Washington, D.C., but she never talks about it,” Jaakola explained. “To me, that kind of leadership is really important to give notice to. It’s not really about getting your own recognition, it’s doing what needs to be done and passing that forward.”

Jaakola said that believing everyone is equal and that everyone has unique knowledge is strongly tied to the Anishinaabe culture from which she comes. That belief brought her to a decisive moment in her career.

New beginnings
She had completed a degree in music from the University of Minnesota and was singing opera in Italy in 1995 with the Rome Operafestival.

“I was onstage, during a performance of the Magic Flute, and it dawned on me that I needed to do something different,” she recalled. “I realized that I needed to be in a singing profession that was more aligned with my cultural traditions. I love opera, because of the storytelling, but the profession itself supports individual success rather than the collective.”

Jaakola admits to feeling a little defeated when she made this discovery about herself. She had been encouraged by her family to pursue music, mentored by an older sister who played guitar and sang.

“I had had some experience teaching tribal music at our reservation school,” she said. “I came home and tried to recreate my goal. What did I want to do as an Anishinaabe female musician?”

Her answer to that question has taken her on many paths in her musical journey. She completed a master’s degree in music from the University of Minnesota and has been teaching music and American Indian studies at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College in Cloquet, Minn., since 1997.

Hand drumming, too
Jaakola’s musical repertoire is varied and wide-ranging. She has sung choral music at Carnegie Hall, has been a jazz scat singer and blues performer. She is a traditional ceremony singer and does gigs with her blues band, Lyz Jaakola & the Smokin’ Chimokes. She has created and performed Native-based compositions, recorded numerous CDs and has directed a youth chorus. She also performs with a Native women’s hand-drum group.

On a recent typical weekend, she sang and performed at the premier of a documentary film, “Carl Gawboy Portrait: The Art of the Everyday,” in which her music had been used in the credits. She participated in two performances with her hand-drum group and sang a song from “Wicked” for a fundraiser for the Lyric Opera of the Northlands.

“I just like to sing,” Jaakola said. “Singing all different kinds of things makes sense to me.”

Besides her teaching, performing and recording, Jaakola is raising two young sons. This year, her family is also hosting a 16-year-old foreign exchange student from Mongolia.

Explaining how she gets everything done, Jaakola said she is very involved in the present and very mindful of what she is doing. “I don’t allow myself a lot of down time.” She also sees other women and girls picking up the baton.

“Five years ago, you didn’t see many women’s hand-drum groups out there,” Jaakola stated. “Now there are a lot. It’s exciting, using their voices in a good way and encouraging other women to do the same thing. It’s empowerment.”

Jaakola said that although she hopes her proudest accomplishment is yet to come, having the women’s hand-drum group recognized with the Native American Music Award for best traditional recording in 2009 was important to her. “It always has gone to a men’s group,” she noted.

Voice for the people
Jaakola is proud of her heritage. Her mother is Ojibwe and Polish and her father Finnish American. She said Anishinaabe means “The People” and is the term used for her tribe in its native language.

“In our stories, women were here first as the embodiment of the earth. In our culture, women are on a par with men traditionally, in all ways. Since we bring life into the world, at times that makes us considered worthy of even more respect.

“When we’re younger, we think people say things to us about our voice, and it is hard for some people to overcome that. We are told our voice is too loud, or it doesn’t sound right. Allowing that voice to come out is my job,” Jaakola reflected. “By using my voice in every way I can, I encourage others to do the same.”