Kathaumixw: Its Earliest Years
From Mountaintop Idea to International Event
Kathaumixw is an international, biennial choral festival that is held in Powell River. The festival has been occurring every two years from its beginnings in 1984 up until the present day, with the most recent one occurring in 2023. It is organized by the Powell River Academy of Music.
Every great music festival simply starts as an idea, and for Kathuamixw, the idea came from the desire to create an internationally recognized youth choral festival in North America much like those in Europe. However, the inception of this idea did not come from within a board room, but rather atop one of Powell River's mountains out of a conversation between two of Powell River's locals. Don James and Dal Matterson were inspired by their surroundings and decided an internationally recognized music festival should be held within their own community.
In an interview with the Town Crier, Don James states, "One Christmas vacation, Dal and I were hiking with our kids and we stopped to look at the view. I said this would be a great place for a choral festival. Why couldn't we put one on? After all a town of 2000 in Wales puts on one of the best festivals in the world."
But how does a festival become internationally renowned in the isolated community of Powell River? Simple, through the participation, passion and efforts of local community members. Originating in the early 1980’s, Kathaumixw has become a staple for the community and the only festival of its kind in North America.
1984 - Inaugural Year
The inaugural run of Kathaumixw took place in 1984 with the participation of roughly 460 youth singers. The event was Canada’s first ever International Choral Festival for children with 9 choirs participating.
Audiences and participants alike are Singing the praises of Kathaumixw . . .
1986 - Community Billets
In 1986, the second annual Kathaumixw took place with 23 choir entries. Originally the committee had intended for 12 choirs to participate, increasing by three from the previous year. However, with the large number of strong entries, the organization looked to the community to support the arrival of 22 groups. Unable to house all the singers in hotels, community members volunteered to let individuals stay within their homes.
Combine 23 of the world’s best sounding choirs with renowned conductors and a tremendous effort by a small group of volunteers. The result is Kathaumixw '86, which in just two years has proved its Coast Salish name 'a gathering together of different peoples' by growing from a small choral festival of eight choirs to this week’s large gathering of 22 visiting choirs and Powell River’s own Academy of Music singers.
1988 - Bigger and Better
During the 1988 festival, 33 choirs participated with 1,200 singers in attendance. That year also expanded Kathaumixw's international presence with 9 overseas choirs. International participants included one Soviet Union choir, a couple of Hungarian choirs, two Finnish choirs, as well as Austrians, Germans, Israelis, and Ugandans. The Ellerhein Choir from Estonia was accepted that year as the top youth choir worldwide.
The unifying factor was the music. People who could not speak the same language were able to communicate through song. Friendships and associations that wouldn't have existed were made.
Kathaumixw 1988 Syllabus
qMAS ID#1991.21 Fonds 134
Kathaumixw - "A Gathering Together of Different Peoples"
Residing along the Salish Sea, the qathet Region has strong ties to the Indigenous culture and heritage that shaped the lands long before the arrival of settlers. The founders, Don James and Dal Matterson, believed the name of the festival should reflect the connection between the area and its Indigenous peoples. Under the guidance of the Tla’amin Nation, the name Kathaumixw was given to the festival meaning “a gathering together of different peoples”. As an international event, from the beginning the festival has grounded its vision with the meaning behind its name.
Kathaumixw 2002 CD
Powell River Academy of Music Collection
This CD features recordings of performances at the 2002 Kathaumixw. Choirs include the Danish National Girls Choir (Choir of the World 2002), Scala from Belgium, Orfeon Chamber Choir from Turkey, Melbourne Welsh Male Choir from Australia, and the Philippine Magrigal Singers.
Program, Pamphlet, and Syllabus from Kathaumixw 1984
This program (left) from Kathaumixw's inaugural year includes maps of Powell River and the Recreation Complex, a schedule of events, and information about the nine participating choirs, their directors, and the members of the jury.
The pamphlet (centre) provides information on Kathaumixw's touring program throughout BC and Washington.
The syllabus (right) provides information and entry forms for prospective choirs.
1990 - Turning Choirs Away
More than 55 choirs applied to partake in the competition in 1990, and only 30 were selected. Alongside to the competition held in Powell River, 40 concerts were scheduled throughout B.C for participating choirs, including a performance at the B.C. Summer Games in Prince George. Roughly 500-600 visitors were billeted within volunteer's homes.
Oscar Peterson's Hymn Freedom was performed by a choir of all the 10 participants as the finale and as the collective voice of Kathaumixw sang, 'That's when we'll be free,' you could not help but feel it of that freedom would be won by the unifying power of music.
1992 - South American Excitement
1,100 singers participated in the 1992 festival, but one choir in particular stole the show. The Venezuelan choral group, Schola Cantorum de Caraca captured the hearts of the audience with their performance.
VENEZUELA'S lively Cantorum Caracas was the crowd's favorite throughout the festival. Whether led by a soloist during Friday's concert in the Evergreen Theatre. . . or by musicians during a mall concert, the choir radiated an energy that was appreciated by other participants and the audiences. It was the first time a South American choir has participated in the festival but won't be the last, based on applications already submitted for the 1994 Kathaumixw.
Ellerhein Children's Choir Pamphlet
1994 - Indigenous Presence
Kathaumixw had had a strong Indigenous presence since its creation, and that was greatly increased when the opening performance for Kathaumixw 1994 was done by members of the Tla'amin Nation. Titled "Whut Khum," meaning the words to describe thunder, the performance by the Indigenous singers portrayed legends of Coast Salish culture.
1996 - Choir of The World
The 1996 competition brought even greater prestige than seen in previous years. World renowned choirs were accepted to perform during the five days and were able to explore what they deemed a beautiful area of the world. To reflect the increased skill level seen during the competition, the organizers introduced a new award - "Choir of the World".
1998 - Kathaumixw at its Finest
In 1998, Kathaumixw expanded to unprecedented levels. It featured 500 more singers than the previous festival in 1996, with a total of 38 choirs and 1600 singers. Many choirs performing came from countries that had never before been part of Kathaumixw, including China, Albania, France, the Czech Republic, and Australia. Some choirs had to stay on Texada Island and even Vancouver Island because accommodations in Powell River were so fully booked.
Stories of Kathaumixw
Off to a Flying Start
It was 1984. The first Kathaumixw was soon to start, and the Opening Ceremonies performers, Uganda's Nyonza Choir, were having troubles with their visas.
Though the Kathaumixw committee made a great effort to sort out these problems while the choir was on their way, their arrival in Vancouver was delayed. After spending three days travelling, the choir missed the last flight to Powell River before their performance was due to begin. Even if they hopped on the next available flight, it seemed they were going to miss the Opening Ceremonies!
When the Kathaumixw committee heard of the situation, they called in the help of the Westview Flying Club, who swiftly answered the call. Around half of the flying club members flew small aircrafts down to the Vancouver Airport and picked up the members of the stranded choir.
The Ugandan performers made it to Powell River in time for their opening performance, and it was an electrifying one. Over the years since, the relationship between Powell River and the Nyonza Choir has remained strong, and the choir often returns to perform at Kathaumixw.
Community Effort for Ukraine
For the 10th anniversary of Kathaumixw, the committee decided to invite all the previous winners. While the majority of the 5 festivals worth of winners were happy to accept the invitation, the winners from 1990 had a problem.
The 1990 winner of Kathaumixw was the Shchedryk Children's Choir from Ukraine. Despite their desire to accept the invitation, they found themselves unable to cover the costs of travelling.
Upon hearing about the choir's financial difficulties, members of the Powell River United church began a fundraising campaign. Thanks to their efforts in the community, they raised $25,000. With this money, they were able to bring the Shchedryk Children's Choir to Kathaumixw as a choir in residence.
While the singers were in Powell River for the festival, they were shown all around the region, and even taken on boat rides and picnics. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the children. The choir's interpreter, Rimma Putilina, is quoted in a July 13, 1994 Powell River News article as saying, "They don't get to do these things at home. Just seeing the country, they learn so much. They develop relationships with people and children of other choirs. They exchange views and speak. Musically, they are enriched by listening to other choirs."
She also felt that the children's health and spirits improved immeasurably as a result of their visit, and she praised the Powell River community. "The children feel so wanted here," she remarked. "They are so well cared for."
Members of the Nyonza Choir from Uganda arriving in Powell River just in time for their performance.
The Shchedryk Children's Choir in 1994 (https://shchedryk.com.ua/gallery-en)