Lil’wat singer, composer is sharing his culture while keeping traditional songs alive

Wednesday, July 19th, 2023 2:18pm


Image Caption

Russell Wallace of the Lil’wat Nation is teaching Salish singing in workshops for the CREATE! Arts Festival July 22 in Vancouver. Photo courtesy of Russell Wallace


"It’s all thanks to my mom because she would sing all day every day,” he said. “No matter what she was doing, sweeping the floor or doing dishes or cooking, she'd be singing." — Russell Wallace
By Odette Auger
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Russell Wallace (Lil'wat) is a composer, producer, teacher and traditional singer. He’s teaching a Salish Singing workshop with the CREATE! Arts Festival at Strathcona Park in Vancouver on Saturday, July 22.

Now in its third year, the CREATE! art-making events are an opportunity for people to meet, learn, and create with the Eastside community’s artists. The two-day festival runs July 22 and July 23.

Growing up in a St'át'imc speaking home, Wallace lived in the Mt. Pleasant area of Vancouver’s Eastside, a richly diverse, working-class neighbourhood. He was the youngest of Flora and Ray Wallace’s 11 children.

He grew up “surrounded by music. You know, just walking through the neighbourhood in the summer, everybody had their windows open and I heard languages and instruments from all over the world,” he said.

His own home overflowed with singing, with his mom Flora “teaching us traditional songs when we were young, so we would sing them in the community at events.”

At age 11, Wallace would stay up with his radio under his pillow, daydreaming of his path in music. He’s now a composer, commissioned to write music for theatre, film and dance. Grandmother Song is an example of Wallace’s work, using traditional music, with contemporary instrumentation, arrangement and production. “

It is a very old, traditional song, translated into English, but keeping the traditional vocal part of the song,” he said.

“It’s all thanks to my mom because she would sing all day every day,” he said. “No matter what she was doing, sweeping the floor or doing dishes or cooking, she'd be singing.”

Sometimes she would be singing traditional Salish songs, or it could be emulating singers on the radio. She would learn their techniques and styles by singing along. Wallace chuckled, remembering her “back in the 70s,  singing along to ‘Macho, Macho Man.’”

That freedom to sing wasn’t there for her in Kamloops Indian Residential School in the 1930s. She was punished for speaking any words in her language or singing any of the songs, Wallace explained.

“It was brutal. She was basically left to die when she got Scarlet Fever. And she pulled through, and she kept the songs she knew alive by singing them with the other kids. Teaching other kids, away from all the nuns and priests.”

“For her, that freedom, they tried to take it away from her, and tried to take the songs and singing away from her, but she was resilient.”

In the 1940s, his parents married and moved to Mount Currie reserve where Wallace says the suppressed and forbidden potlatch songs “were just coming out of the underground. And her Elders said ‘we have to sing these songs or we're going to lose them’.”

Before she passed, she asked Wallace to keep teaching the songs, out of respect for her and the generations of people who went through residential schools.

“I do teach these songs. I do sing them whenever I can. And I do sing in the kitchen when I'm doing dishes as well, or listening to music. And yes, I will sing “Macho, Macho, Man”, too,” he said, laughing.

Wallace has set up a bursary in honour of his parents called the Ray and Flora Wallace Bursary: It’s for Indigenous music students at Vancouver Community College.

Both his parents loved music and were committed to supporting the urban Indigenous community in Vancouver. As Wallace grew older, he learned his parents’ home was a centre for people who needed support for tuition or textbooks.

When Wallace teaches singing workshops, he’s led by intuition and meeting the participants where they are at. Sometimes that’s learning more about harmonizing, or projecting their voice. Sometimes it's a sing along. The workshops at CREATE! are open to “anyone who is curious, and anyone who wants to sing,” said Wallace. He’s pleased when newcomers to Canada join the workshops and has learned from their conversations there is a need for introductions to Indigenous culture. Singing is his way to share that with them.

For Wallace, singing and music is creative self-expression, and a responsibility.

“I have a responsibility to my parents and my mom who shared with me all of these songs and all these teachings about our music,” he said. “Being an artist, I'm responsible for sharing and passing that along to the community and to my children and grandchildren as well.

“We are the voice for some things, or we could be a catalyst, or we could be a form of comfort,” said Wallace. “I think artists, musicians, singers, we bring something to the world that the world needs.”

Visit for tickets to join in for Wallace’s singing workshops.

For full schedule and information on a wide range of art events, from watercolour painting, needle felting, indigo dying, pottery, and more visit:

Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.