“Unfortunately, I don’t think he realized just how much he had succeeded in touching their hearts.” — Réal Lesage
By Marie White
Huron-Wendat Gilles Siouï, 60, the blues-folk artist who gave the sound of Wendat Land to his beloved community, left suddenly for his spirit journey June 30, the day before he was set to perform with his Midnight Riders band during the powwow.
It is a heart-felt loss for his entire community. The gentle, talented musician touched his people through the chords of his guitar, his soothing rhythms and his carefully chosen words.
Respected and admired throughout the Native and non-Native communities of Quebec, the news of his passing appeared in media around the province in both English and French. A very rare occurrence for a native son of the place he termed Wendat Land meaning Wendake, the 1.7 square km home of the Huron-Wendats near Quebec City since 1697.
Siouï’s musical influence spanned a much larger territory. He played with renowned musicians Bob Walsh, Kevin Parent and Florent Vollant and travelled extensively to Innu and Attikamek communities to inspire new artists. He formed the Midnight Riders band with brother Bruno, cousin Réal Lesage and Kanu, which launched its first demo after winning the CONGA prize at Laval University in the early 1990s.
In 2008, he represented Wendake for Quebec City’s 400th anniversary.
“Gilles earned a degree in specialized teaching and did a training period but never pursued it. In Secondary 1 and 2, he was into sports and thought he would make a career there,” remembers Lesage. But when his brother Bruno handed him a guitar and showed him how to play three chords, the 21-year-old Siouï was hooked for life.
Lesage shared a humourous anecdote that Gilles liked to recount: “Gilles would tell me: ‘When I was in Secondary 1, the students had to take music. And I was the only student not to pass the course!’”
Ironically, Siouï turned out to be probably the only student to make a living as an accomplished musician. He even earned the professional nickname “First Take” because he tended to practice so well that he would nail a new song on the first take.
“You have so much talent,” said an admiring Réal many years ago, and Gilles smiled. “No, I don’t have a lot of talent; I just practice a lot.”
And a lot he did. Strumming away for many hours every day, Gilles became a remarkable self-taught musician. He went on to play bass, drums and his favourite, the guitar.
“Gilles played acoustic, electric and slide guitar equally well, which is a rare accomplishment,” added Lesage, “and he was excellent at fingerpicking, such as in I Must Be Somewhere, playing the base with three fingers and the melody with the other two.”
Gilles played lead guitar on more than 40 albums and created four CDs during his more than 40-year career: Gilles C. Siouï and the Midnight Riders (1997 reissued 2000), Rising Sun (2000), Old Fool (2004) and Brother to Brother (2013).
Siouï told Windspeaker in 2004 that Old Fool was dedicated to a close friend, adding gently that he too was a fool, “a fool for blues.” Why the blues? “I have a constant case of the blues,” he said, with all its turmoil and pain.
Touching that turmoil through his music allowed him to touch hearts. “Unfortunately, I don’t think he realized just how much he had succeeded in touching their hearts,” reflected Lesage, who heard many moving tributes at his cousin’s wake—a sincere, intimate and humble wake that respected the spirit of the man.
Siouï always preferred to play in an intimate venue, rarely venturing past that safe zone even if he had the talent to do so. Exceptionally, he agreed to perform as the Midnight Riders at the Montreal Jazz Festival in 2016.
Though he spoke French at home, his lyrics were in English, a language he felt best rendered the feel of the blues.
“As long as you sing with a Wendat heart, your song is Huron-Wendat,” Gilles would say. He created only one song in French, dedicated to Gaëtan Siouï.
Grand Chief Konrad Siouï honoured the sudden passing of his esteemed cousin by immediately posting a message on Facebook calling Gilles “an accomplished artist and proud ambassador of his Nation.”
The Grand Chief had just opened the annual powwow when he was informed of Gilles’ passing.
“I had to go on with my busy schedule,” said Konrad bravely, “but it was tough. It was really tough.”
Gilles, son of former Grand Chief Claude Siouï, (Konrad’s uncle and godfather) “was proud to bear his father’s traditional name, Tiokuenhi (he who protects his nation),” Konrad added. Both the Nation and the Midnight Riders will plan tributes to Gilles in the coming year.
Konrad remembers his cousin as a kind, sensitive man who was there when you needed him.
“I remember when my daughter passed away 22 years ago. Gilles asked what he could do and he sang a Rolling Stones and an Eric Clapton song at her funeral.”
In 2013, Konrad was honoured to present Gilles with the Lys Blues Gala Trophy for his 40 year career.
“He deserved it so much. He did not look for glory, but I knew that this honour really touched him.”
During the powwow mass in the Notre-Dame-de-Lorette Church, Steeve Wadohandik Gros-Louis performed an honour dance for Gilles with his Sandokwa group
“We couldn’t say ‘we love you Gilles’ so we danced in a heart-felt tribute to him,” said Gros-Louis.
Another fellow artist and close friend, Louis-Karl Picard-Siouï, posted: “A deep sadness fills me because our Blues legend has taken the route of the setting sun. It was an honour to have journeyed with you, Gilles. Your talent, your kindness, your humility, your sensitivity and most of all, your endless generosity made you a source of light that lit up so many lives. All those who crossed your path.”
Réal described Gilles as “a really good person whom everyone liked, who never wanted to disturb or worry anyone. Yet he was always there with kind words of advice for his close circle of family and friends.”
He had a special affinity with animals, enjoyed fishing and savoured solitude while walking in the woods.
“As a musician, Gilles was a perfectionist and details really mattered; as a person, he could be extremely sensitive, even a bit morose,” reflected Pascal Lainé, his tour director.
“He was an ambassador and source of pride for the whole community. I am very happy to have worked with him for over 25 years.”