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Zoon: Born Again  

The Spiritual Fulfilment of Daniel Monkman 

by Leslie Ken Chu

Photos by Vanessa Heins | Design by Erik Grice

Daniel Monkman is sick and tired of living behind a mask. Over the course of their journey, the Selkirk-born musician has found the strength and courage to reconnect with their truest self while honouring their Indigenous heritage and two-spirit identity in the process.

Recently opening up about their experiences of rediscovery after a life of oppression and forced assimilation, Monkman continues to put in the daily work required to process difficult things such as finding closure with losing loved ones and processing pain stemming from past issues with mental health and substance use. On Bekka Ma’iingan, their sophomore album as Zoon (out April 28 via Paper Bag Records), Monkman is finally able to be their truest self. Amid chiming guitars, yearning trumpets, and blissful blankets of droning, electronic ambience, Monkman shares these experiences while encouraging others in similar situations to express themselves in such a way so that they too can live their fullest, most authentic life.

Bekka Ma’iingan‘s floating lead single, “A Language Disappears,” reflects a common fear among Indigenous people, that their language—in Monkman’s case, Ojibway—will be forgotten. Monkman sows Ojibway words throughout their work, mainly in song titles, but in their moniker, too: “Zoon” is short for “zoongide’ewin,” meaning “bravery” or “courage.”

As Monkman explains, learning and preserving the ancestral language is part of one’s journey as a “Born Again Indian,” which they began in their 20s.

“The Born Again Indian is a rebirth of connecting to your heritage,” Monkman tells RANGE by phone from their Toronto home. “I was born Native, but then I was raised being told not to acknowledge it.” Monkman was taught to hide this part of their identity to keep them safe from the outside world, but they ultimately learned that doing the opposite was truly necessary. “Reconnecting with my culture was actually the healing I needed,” they say.

“Reconnecting with my culture was actually the healing I needed.”

– Daniel Monkman

Long before Monkman began actively learning about their Ojibway roots, they gained a deeper understanding about another part of themselves that they always felt existed. When they were a teen, they became acquainted with a two-spirit person whom others in Monkman’s community called “ninjichaag,” meaning “the spirit within.”

“I remember thinking about that person a lot in my teenage years. And it was something I really connected with,” Monkman says, reflecting on feeling an inherent familiarity with them. “I hadn’t met someone like that before.”

Monkman knows the power of opening up about difficult personal matters. “It’s important to be brave and talk about those things because growing up, I didn’t have many role models,” they say. “If I did have people I could talk to about this stuff, it would have made certain aspects of my life a bit easier and less confusing. I feel an obligation to fight through some of those things, even if it’s gonna be a tough conversation to have with certain people.” In starting such conversations, Monkman is fulfilling the fundamental purpose of their art: to find and establish community.

“That’s what I was looking for constantly, and I didn’t know how to find it because I felt like an outsider whenever I went to powwows. I felt like an outsider when I went to indie shows. I just thought that if I started to make music how I felt was comfortable, eventually, like-minded people would connect to it. I see that happening. That’s how Adam [Sturgeon] and I got together,” Monkman says of their fellow Anishinaabe bandmate in OMBIIGIZI, who also fronts the blown-out sludge-psych rock band Status/Non-Status. The duo’s chemistry is undeniable: their debut album, 2022’s Kevin Drew-produced Sewn Back Together, catapulted them onto the Polaris Music Prize shortlist. (Zoon’s own debut, Bleached Wavves, earned a Polaris shortlist nomination in 2021 as well.)

Since then, Monkman’s list of collaborators has blossomed and includes numerous other Polaris alumni. Their Big Pharma EP, for instance, welcomed both Leanne Betasamosake Simpson and Cadence Weapon. Monkman looped slide riffs to resemble strings on Bleached Wavves, but on Bekka Ma’iingan, those abstractions have been replaced by the real thing, arranged by celebrated Canadian composer Owen Pallett and performed by the FAMES Orchestra.

“I basically wrote songs I knew would work well with strings,” Monkman says of their approach, which required leaving space between grand acoustic and piano chords for orchestral elements. “I really had to picture what the strings would sound like.” The process was difficult but rewarding. “I’d always wanted to make a record like this.”

Bekka Ma’iingan‘s most prominent collaborator came courtesy of Yonatan Gat last September. The Israeli composer and guitar maestro invited Monkman to perform vocals on the Canadian tour dates of his Medicine Singers project, a collaboration with Algonquin drum group the Eastern Medicine Singers. While at the Pop Montreal music festival, the group recorded music at renowned studio Hotel 2 Tango. To Monkman’s surprise, Gat invited Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo to one of the sessions.

“We stayed at the same hostel and wrote music for a few days together, and eventually exchanged contact info and just stayed in touch,” they say. Monkman grew up listening to Ranaldo’s music and now Ronaldo has left his imprint on Bekka Ma’iingan, including the fluttering track “Niizh Manidoowig (2 Spirit).”

Monkman recalls learning to play guitar and discovering open tunings by spending hours experimenting with moving the tuner head. “Working with Lee and knowing his work with Sonic Youth—watching him play or just talking to him about open tunings—has given me new insight into what I can do with it,” they say.

Despite Monkman’s ascent over the last three years, whether by force or intention, they’ve taken things slowly. Bekka Ma’iingan‘s title acknowledges this reality, combining the Ojibway words for “slow down” and “wolf.” (The latter refers to their family clan on their father’s side.)

“I felt like a lot of my life has always been fast-paced either because I’m struggling to find a new job or pay rent, kind of always in survival mode,” they say. Monkman also struggled with body dysphoria, exacerbated by folliculitis, a skin condition that left their face scarred. “I was too scared to go to doctors because of institutional trauma over the years dealing with doctors and seeing how they treat Indigenous people.”

Rather than rehash the mysterious and abstract photos Monkman used for most Zoon releases, taken in the thick of their insecurity, they put off shooting photos for Bekka Ma’iingan for as long as possible. It took great courage for Monkman to go through with the album’s press photos and album art, which display their face and body more clearly than ever, with the added spark of makeup and a colourful wardrobe.

“I wanted to do something that was more aligned to who I was as a person and not be this mask again that I was hiding behind.”

– Daniel Monkman

“I wanted to do something that was more aligned to who I was as a person and not be this mask again that I was hiding behind. I wanted to honour myself by doing something for myself,” they say.

By this point, Monkman had also found a doctor who prescribed a simple but effective topical treatment for folliculitis. “I felt like all the stars were lining up, that I was feeling so good in my body.”

Monkman was once a kid who kept their angst bottled up and tried to pass without notice. Now it’s difficult to look away from their joyful rebellion. “Now I get to express myself through photos and visual art,” they say beaming, having reclaimed their life. “In my heart, I’m an artist who can do all types of things; I want to get into modelling, and I saw this [photo shoot] as an opportunity.”

All of Monkman’s ups and downs have shaped Bekka Ma’iingan. “[The album]’s kind of a journey, and that’s what I was doing while making it,” Monkman says of its stilted progress, a process that began in March 2020, two months before Bleached Wavves washed out into the world.

“This record took a long time, and now that it’s done, I feel very fulfilled, that’s for sure. It’s just really cool to hear strings on a record. That’s what I’ve always wanted.”