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Saltwater Hank Stays True To His Word On Siip’nsk

The B.C. artist honours tradition & rocks out to preserve the Sm’algya̱x language.

Saltwater Hank wages a war of words with his new album Siip’nsk — showcasing today on Tinnitist.

When we were young, we used to think rock ’n’ roll could save the world. The jury’s still out on that one, but in the meantime, there’s every reason to believe it can win battles that are smaller but no less urgent.

That’s become the musical mission of Saltwater Hank, the Indigenous roots artist whose new album Siip’nsk continues his quest to preserve the Sm’algya̱x language in song. The mother tongue of the Ts’msyen people of Hank’s native La̱x Kxeen aka Prince Rupert, B.C. Now here comes Siip’nsk. With every syllable sung in Sm’algya̱x, and music seamlessly interweaving traditional Ts’msyen words and melodies with the instrumental moves of classic rock and blues, the album will find its home in the ears of listeners far and wide.

“I care a lot about our language, with there being around 60 fluent speakers remaining, and none of those speakers are under the age of 70,” Hank says. “It’s such a tremendous part of who we are as Ts’msyen people, how we see the world, how we interact with our environment. So that has become a part of me. Through reclaiming the language, I reclaim identity, and by having it be a huge part of my creative process, I get to express that.”

Photo by Melody Charlie.

The single Xgap’isgu doesn’t rely just on the Sm’algya̱x language, but also on a specific idiomatic expression. Hank’s rockin’ trio sink their teeth into an old-school rave-up that makes the most of a somewhat eyebrow-raising bit of inherited phraseology. “Xgap’isgu means ‘I eat the berries right off the bush,’ ” Hank explains. “I get a lot of enjoyment from using words that take an entire sentence in English to describe what they mean.”

To wit:
“G̱a̱ni wila xga̱p’isgu
(I’m continuously eating berries from off the bush)
Txa̱l ga̱bu na iimg̱u
(I’m almost eating my whiskers)
Dzida hoyag̱ida sg̱a̱n smmaay ‘nüün
(If you were like a blueberry bush)
Ksa duulayu dm hoyu ada wayi hagwil dm güültu.
(My tongue is all I’d use, and well, I’m going to pick slowly.)”

Saltwater was born in La̱x Kxeen, with bloodlines stemming from Txałgiiw, Maxłaxaała & Gitwangak. From early on, he was drawn to the stories and traditions of Ts’msyen life. With the legacy of his great-great-grandmother — a revered songwriter of traditional songs — to guide him, he set out on his own journey to preserve the purity of the Ts’msyen musical heritage.

Photo by Cam Cerant.

The more recent stages of that odyssey have seen him studying the language in earnest, getting ever more comfortable with its rich vocabulary and evocative idioms. His last album, 2023’s G̱al’üünx Wil Lu Holtga Liimi, was also sung entirely in Sm’algya̱x, but it was a more country-oriented affair that was often tagged as Americana. Hank has become even more fluent in the language since then, helping solidify the “precontact” authenticity of his presentation; at the same time, his music has gotten even more accessible. Xgap’isgu shakes the walls in a punked-out fashion that’s bound to captivate listeners who don’t speak a word, which, as we’ve established, means just about everybody. The amped-up garage energy of the track is taken to the next level by the fluidity of some skittering, frenetic lead guitar.

Like the rest of the album, the song was recorded live in the studio, with all of instrumentation and even vocals going down in real time. That strategy has made for a vibrant document of the airtight interplay between guitarist-vocalist Hank, drummer Danny Bell (a Minnesota-born resident of the Lheidli T’enneh territory who’s played with him since 2012) and bassist Melissa Walker of Prince George, making her swan-song appearance as a member of the trio.

Their fearlessly straightforward approach lends itself to the stage, which is where the ttrio are headed this summer to show off their new material — and to provide some fresh storytelling opportunities for their frontman, who’s quite the raconteur no matter the language. Dates are as follows:

Photo by Melody Charlie.

July 12-14 | Arts on The Fly Festival, Horsefly, B.C.
July 17 | Omineca, Prince George, B.C.
July 18 | Performances in the Park, Williams Lake, B.C.
July 19-21 | Bella Coola Music Festival, Bella Coola, B.C.
July 26-28 | Kispiox Valley Music Festival, Hazelton, B.C.
July 31 | Souris Hall, Souris, P.E.I.
Aug. 2-4 | Sappy Fest, Sackville, NB
Aug. 9 | Union Café, Berwick, NS
Aug. 10 | Buffalo Club, Dartmouth, NS
Aug. 11 | Gus’ Pub, Halifax, NS
Aug. 16-18 | Robson Valley Music Festival, Dunster, B.C.
Aug. 30 | Quadrapalooza, Quadra Island, B.C.
Sept. 1 | Sunshine Fest, Powell River, B.C.

Check out Siip’nsk below and follow Saltwater Hank on Instagram and Facebook.


Photo by Ali Calladine.