Unlikely singer takes North by surprise
The Pukatawagan song may be off-key, but if you love it, well, you love it
Globe and Mail ~ April 26, 2002
Before he became Manitoba's quirkiest recording sensation, Sidney Castel's music career was on hold because his wife kept breaking his guitars over his head -- three in total -- to make him stop singing.
When she died five years ago, the retiree from the fly-in reserve of Pukatawagan, nearly 800 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, picked up a new guitar and penned his now famous ode to the northern Cree community, where he grew up trapping muskrat and beaver.
With his barely discernible lyrics crooned off-key and accompanied by his admittedly rusty acoustic guitar work, Mr. Castel's Pukatawagan song has unexpectedly struck a chord with listeners. You either loathe or love it.
An independent label compact disc featuring the song sold 5,000 copies last year. Radio stations all over the North, and CBC Manitoba had Pukatawagan on their play lists. The 68-year-old former hospital orderly was being booked to sing at venues from British Columbia to Ontario. Next week he starts recording a full-length CD of his original work.
"Truck drivers have pulled their rigs right up into our loading zone and come in to ask for a copy of the song." said Ness Michaels, chief executive officer of Winnipeg-based Sunshine Records, which recorded Mr. Castel's song professionally as a talent contest prize.
When he introduced his latest original son, Thompson, at a gig in Peguis, Man., recently, somebody recorded it secretly and dropped the tape off anonymously at radio stations. (Mr. Castel suspects his nephew.)
It became another request favourite immediately, even airing on CBC Radio, before Mr. Michaels asked radio stations to stop playing the bootleg copy and allow the record company time to make a professional recording.
It's all a bit overwhelming for Mr. Castel, who still lives in Pukatawagan and takes trains or bush planes to meet his commitments.
"Holy smokes, talk about it. I'm kinda getting famous," he said from his home yesterday. "I'm kinda scared because I'm too old. But I like performing and I like signing autographs."
After his wife died in 1997, and he'd spent 20 long years without singing a tune, he returned to Pukatawagan where he had been raised by trappers. The move gave his musical ambitions a second wind.
Mr. Castel entered a talent contest run by Missinippi River Native Communications, operators of the local radio station. He was one of winners.
All were flown to Winnipeg, put up a local hotel, and taken by limousine to Sunshine Records to have their winning songs professionally recorded and compiled into a compact disc.
"They were all flabbergasted . . . . This was a big dream come true," Mr. Michaels recalled.
Pukatawagan stood out immediately.
"'Wow,' I said: 'this is a different tune.' Everybody else sang a regular country rock. It was really, really different," Mr. Michaels said.
When Sunshine Records mailed the finished CD to radio stations across the country, inquiries came rolling in about the song.
"It was the reason 90 per cent of the CDs sold," Mr. Michaels said.
Mr. Castel's voice which Mr. Michaels describes as ""soprano, with a bit of alto and something in between," is not universally celebrated in Manitoba.
"There's nothing like something that polarizes the population. . . people either loved it or hated it. Nobody is neutral about it," said Charles Adler, host of CJOB-AM's radio talk show, Adler On Line, in Winnipeg, where Mr. Castel was a recent guest and performed Pukatawagan. "The first time I heard it I thought it was a parody."
Mr. Michaels is still giggling about that too. When an associate came into the original recording session of the Pukatawagan song and told him, "That's going to be a hit," he responded, "Are you serious?"
Now he says he hopes to sign a contract with the "lovable" grandfather from the North.
IN the meantime, Mr. Castel is working on some new songs. The success has taken him back to more youthful days, when he spent hours paddling the Pukatawagan waterways imitating Hank Williams Sr., his musical idol.
And he is unchastened by the fact that somebody stole his $700 guitar last winter. Now he has a band to back him up.
Doctor Sidney - The Hospital Orderly
Sidney was a regular visitor to Northern schools were he volunteered to assist in the instruction of health classes.
Here he lends his expertise in assisting in an HIV awareness class.
SIDNEY CASTEL FEATURES AT THE
HILLMAN PUKATAWAGAN SITE
Puk First Annual Talent Search 2000: Original Song Winners
Special Guest Sidney Castel in performance and discussion
with Bill Hillman and BU students
CASTEL MEDIA LIBRARY
Sung by Sidney Castel (Live Version)
Castel News Feature on CKY-TV
Smaller Faster-Loading Version
6, 2002 CBC Interview
With Shelagh Rogers ~ CBC Radio One