Jowi Taylor spent 11 years, drove and flew hundreds of thousands of kilometres, and spent an immeasurable amount of money to build a guitar that he can’t play.
Playing with history
April 11, 2014 by Leave a Comment
And he doesn’t regret it one bit, but this is no ordinary guitar.
Six String Nation, which goes by the nickname Voyageur, contains historically-significant materials from all of Canada’s provinces and territories, including a piece of Wayne Gretzky’s hockey stick, wood from Sir John A. Macdonald’s office furniture, and more obscure but equally-important materials such as a piece of walrus tusk from Rankin Inlet, Nunavut.
Taylor, a broadcaster and writer, undertook the project to celebrate Canada’s diversity, to reaffirm its identity, and to bring Canadians together through story and song. He recently told his story to students and staff at Beaumont Composite High School.
“The Canadian story is kind of being hijacked by advertisers of all kinds,” Taylor said. “Our identity is kind of being foisted upon us.
“Increasingly, the government says we’re all about 1812, or a doughnut store says to be Canadian you really have to eat our doughnuts. And I don’t believe any of that. I believe the real story of Canada, happens in places like downtown Toronto, and Tyne Valley, P.E.I, and Beaumont, Alberta,” he added.
Taylor decided to pursue the task of telling the true Canadian story during the 1995 Quebec Referendum on separation.
“It seemed to me that we missed the opportunity to have the national conversation about identity,” he said.
All too often, Canadians are defined by stock images such as our love for hockey or maple syrup, Taylor said.
“We are way more interesting and diverse than these stock images would suggest,” he said.
“The whole idea of citizenship isn’t just receiving the standard picture of what a country is and repeating it,” he added. “It’s your capacity to impact that story. To change those lives. To tell your story and have it become part of the larger story … and we don’t do that very well in this country.”
Taylor met guitar maker George Rizsanyi at a convention in Toronto in the mid-1990s and told him his idea to build a guitar out of materials from every province. Rizsanyi quickly hopped on board.
Taylor traveled nationwide to collect materials, to celebrated buildings such as Massey Hall in Toronto and Saint-Boniface Museum in Manitoba, as well as more remote locations like Great Bear Lake, N.W.T and Lennox Island First Nation, P.E.I.
During the course of his journey, he discovered what it really means to be Canadian.
“To me this is what the whole project is about,” Taylor said. “If the whole impetus for the project is to kind of expand the palette of colours we use to paint the picture of Canada, now I feel like I’m in a battle with those who are attempting to limit those colours.”
Among the most culturally significant materials is a piece of gold from Montreal Canadien Maurice Richard’s Stanley Cup ring and a sliver of wood from former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s canoe paddle. But even more significant to Taylor are lesser-known materials, like part of a knife owned by former Aboriginal Canadian oyster-shucking champion Joe Labobe.
“Maybe you guys don’t see it as a big deal to be declared a Canadian oyster-shucking champion,” Taylor said. “And to tell you the truth, I think (Joe Labobe’s widow) Genevieve was kind of puzzled as to why I had came all this way to Tyne Valley, P.E.I to meet her and talk to her.”
But to Taylor the reason is simple. Although Labobe may not be known to many outside of the oyster-shucking community, the mark he left on Canadian identity is just as significant as any of the other figures.
“Each and every one of these pieces tell a story,” Taylor said. “And each and every one of them is part of this guitar.”
In total, the guitar has 64 pieces of bone, metal, wood, stone and fabric from across Canada. The guitar’s front is primarily made from wood from Kiidk’yaas, or the Golden Spruce, a 300-year-old dead spruce tree with a rare genetic mutation which resulted in golden needles.
The tree had been cut down by a British Columbian activist, and had lay largely untouched for nine years. Taylor had to get permission to harvest the wood from the local Aboriginal community, and an elder also had to be present during the ceremony.
“It was such a sacrifice and gift from a community who had no real reason to participate in a flag-waving patriotic thing, because that’s not the relationship they had with Canada,” he said.
But the community eventually realized the guitar was about more than flag-waving – it was about creating an enduring symbol of Canada’s history.
Taylor experienced several surreal moments as he persued the project. He learned of a man named Taylor Aspin who was seeking to carve a sculpture made of wood from across Canada.
Taylor wanted to meet Aspin and collaborate, but it was not to be.
“It never got to happen because he was struck by lightning and killed,” Taylor recalled. “So I wanted to somehow honour him in the project.”
Taylor incorporated the mallet Aspin was using to carve the tree into the guitar.
The Royal Canadian Mint issued a 50 cent coin in the shape of a guitar pick to recognize the guitar’s contribution to Canadian history. And Taylor once opened his mailbox to find a letter from NASA telling him that a guitar pick he gifted to astronaut Chris Hadfield had officially orbited the Earth.
Students at Beaumont Composite had opportunities to pose with and even play the guitar after Taylor’s presentation.
Some students, like Shyla Stock, were at first puzzled as to why the whole school was hearing a presentation on a guitar.
“Originally I thought `Why are we taking the whole class off to hear about a guitar?` But it was really amazing,” she said.
Stock said the presentation ultimately made her think of her own Canadian identity. “I never really thought about what it means for Beaumont to be part of Canada,” she said.
“We talk a lot about our French identity, but this makes you think about how we relate to the rest of the country.”
The sentiment was echoed by Beaumont Composite Assistant Principal Brad Clarke. He said his favourite stories were the lesser-known ones, such as the tale of Joe Labobe and his oyster-chucking knife.
“It reminded me of the simple fact that we’re joined by our similarities and not divided by our differences … there is in fact a national flavour to being Canadian,” he said. “And this helps quantify that.”
Voyageur has been played by a wide range of Canadian politicians and musicians, including the late Jack Layton and musicians Feist and Bruce Cockburn.
It has travelled more than 300,000 kilometres nationwide and been in about 150,000 portraits with more than 15,000 people, famous and non-famous alike.
But for Taylor, the most satisfying moments are when he sees everyday Canadians belt out a tune on the guitar. He often gets disheartened when people look past the guitar’s story and ask “Has Neil Young played it yet?”
“Well, he hasn’t, and I’d be delighted if he did, but I’m actually more delighted that (contemporary Canadian musician) John K. Samson played it,” Taylor said.
“These are tour artists of our time, telling the Canadian story in an ongoing way,” he added. “So to always keep referring back to these people who once defined us in the 60s, it’s frustrating.”
In particular, he loves seeing young people display their talent with Voyageur. \
“I’m encouraging youth to embrace their own story as being important,” he said. “That’s the message, we’re not all about hockey players and politicians … It’s your story. And you have to get practised at telling it, because otherwise, how can they tell it for you?”