Sunday, September 21, 2014
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Groundbreaking aboriginal musician Charles Nabess dies

Charles Nabess of Three Penny Opera dies at the age of 68

By Andrea Ratuski, CBC News

The music and aboriginal communities are marking the passing of guitarist and fiddler Charles Nabess who died of cancer on May 6 at the age of 68. He and his brother were members of a band called Three Penny Opera.

The Métis musician was born in Thicket Portage in northern Manitoba. At the age of 16 he moved to the Pas where he and his brother, Donny, a singer, began performing together. The two brothers moved to Winnipeg in 1963 and formed The Midnight Angels. They recorded a single, I'm Strugglin' on the Apex label in Toronto, which paved the way for a new group, Three Penny Opera.

Dave McLeod of NCI FM said his passing is huge in the aboriginal music community. "He was a mentor for other musicians and in a quiet way he was making a difference by showing that an aboriginal person could do this," he said.

Despite Three Penny Opera's success touring in the U.S., Europe and on cruise ships, McLeod said that Nabess was often introduced as a Spanish guitar player.

"They even made up Spanish names for him because the management would have frowned upon having a native person in the band, and yet he was the leader of the band. Here's a great guitarist who has to hide behind a veil of who he really is," McLeod explained.

He fondly recalled a tribute concert in 2011 called Guitar Heroes which also featured the likes of Billy Joe Green and Jimmy Flett. The show received a rousing standing ovation.

"It was a loving standing ovation because these guys have been there since the '60s and they made music their lives. Nobody's gotten rich in their music career from doing it but they've committed their lives to it. They're the ground breakers, the trailblazers," he said.

"Here's a guy from Thicket Portage, northern Manitoba who did get to record, who did travel the world."

Through it all, McLeod says he never lost his culture and was equally at home on the fiddle playing traditional tunes.

"He was first of all a gentleman, a really kind, giving person, It was about just sharing music from the heart. That's the legacy that he's left, that it can be done," he said.

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