The Hillman BU EduTech Project

Singer and Writer of the Pukatawagan Song



Sidney with Sky Walker
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.

'Pukatawagan' singer dead
CBC News ~ March 23, 2003 

A northern Manitoba singer who gained fame in this province for "The Pukatawagan Song" has died. 

Sidney Castel was found dead in his home in Pukatawagan Friday. He was 68. 

Police say he died of natural causes. 


Sidney Castel, the Cree pop music phenomenon, community health worker and traditional story teller, was born in the remote northern settlement of Pukatawagan, Manitoba, on March 30, 1934. Aged 68, he died suddenly of asphyxiation due to natural causes at his home in Pukatawagan on March 21, 2003. Predeceased by his wife Sarah, he was the father of twelve. There were seven daughters, Linda, Mary, Rosie, Mary, Jane, Flora and Melvina. Sidney and Sarah had four boys, George, Donald, Sidney Joe and Tony, as well as one adopted son, Lorne. Sidney is survived by over sixty grandchildren. Most famous for his Pukatawagan Song and the Thompson Song, Mr. Castel had just finished recording a new CD, Live at the Beaver Lodge, released by Sunshine Records, when he passed away.

Always a hard worker, Sidney may have taken his cue from his father Paul, who had travelled around the traplines as a Hudson's Bay trader, exchanging flour, sugar, tea and tobacco for furs. This enterprising spirit can be seen in the anecdote of Sidney the squirrel trapper. As a child with no money, he craved the candy an independent merchant, a white man known as a “big shot,” had on display near Otter Bay, where the family was staying at the time. His mother laughed and suggested that he sell his small furs, the squirrel and mink pelts. She asked him, “How do you think you are going to buy those candies? Maybe you could trade your furs. That merchant also buys furs.” Sidney said he would trade his small furs. At the store he announced, “I come to buy, white man.” Pointing to his shopping pouch, he asked, “Where’s your candies? [Put] your candies in here, your chocolate bars in here.” The merchant took Sidney’s little pelts in exchange. There was even some change left over.

As a young man, Sidney learned to fish and to trap. According to Cree custom, the animals were always respected and never killed for no good reason or just for pleasure. Alex Dumas was his teacher in the bush. Prior to his urban work experiences, Sidney supported himself by means of traditional fishing and trapping.
Sidney worked on the railway in the 1950s, and then for several years he was employed as an orderly in hospitals in Swan River and The Pas. Later, he was given the title of Honorary Doctor of Pukatawagan for his work as a Community Health Representative, a post he held until his retirement. People recall the time a woman in childbirth arrived at the nursing station when there was no doctor in attendance. Undaunted, Sidney struggled to put on surgical gloves. “Sidney, get out of here,” the attending women told him. The baby was born before Sidney could manage to pull on the gloves.

In spite of his familiarity with bush life, Sidney possessed orienteering skills that were less than perfect. One night in the 1980s he and his wife became lost on a snowmobiling expedition in the area around Kississing Lake near Sherridon. Realizing they were lost, they went to a shoreline and started a campfire in order to warm up and to make themselves more visible. When no rescuers came they tired of waiting and moved on. Soon, they noticed a speck of light in the distance. They approached the light, and sure enough it was a campfire. They were happy to see it, but when they stopped and looked more closely, they realized it was their own campfire. They stayed there overnight and made their way home the next morning.

Sidney was, by his own admission, “not always a singer.” He was always an entertainer, however, and often delighted listeners with stories and with his impromptu performances. A self-taught singer-guitarist whose experience was gained mainly from participation in the church choir and from listening to recordings of his favourite singer, his musical hero Hank Williams Sr., Sidney’s quirky off-key and nonstandard musical arrangements appealed especially to listeners with a generous sense of musical humour. His wife did not like his singing and broke three of his guitars. However, his daughters recall fondly how, twenty-five years ago, their father used to carry two of them at a time in his arms and sing the Ballad of Pukatawagan, composed to celebrate his return home after “twenty long years.” Sidney used to claim, “This song will be a hit someday.” Then, people would laugh. At public occasions he would sing the unlikely hit and again people would laugh.

While his musical inspiration was Hank Williams, his martial arts hero was Bruce Lee. Whenever Sidney was in mellow spirits, having imbibed a bit much, he would be seen dressed in his kung-fu outfit, challenging people to “take him on.” He would display his fists of fury and would assume a kick-boxing pose, and then people would move aside, unsure whether Sidney might not be serious in his intent. Some of Sidney’s fingers were a bit mangled from having struck hard objects incorrectly.

In 2000 the First Annual Talent Search was hosted by Pukatawagan. Sidney's song was not expected to win, but when the CD was released in 2001, there was one constant request from the public: The Pukatawagan Song. For a month, the song was number one on the NCI radio network. Sidney was often interviewed, and he sang for the CBC and for CTV television in 2002. Sidney travelled widely, prompting him once to make the tongue-in-cheek comment, “I’m having more fun and making more money now than when I was a doctor.” “Boy, I can’t hide myself any more!” he would say. Sidney never let fame go to his head, though. A neighbour once commented, “Hey, Sidney, you’re famous!” Sidney replied, “That's all right--I'll still talk to you.” He meant it.

An avid outdoorsman, Sidney would often travel out in his boat on weekends, and more often after he retired at 65. Upon returning from a fishing expedition in late 1999, he was asked if he was enjoying his retirement. "No! It's boring!" he said. Apparently, fishing was not enough, but Sidney's final career was just about to be launched thanks to the First Annual Talent Search. Fondly remembered by his many friends and relatives, Sidney will entertain future generations through his recordings and published stories.

Sidney Castel will long be remembered for his quirky sense of humour. He loved to share a joke and make people laugh. Untold thousands of listeners throughout the North and beyond truly enjoyed his unusual singing. His community is proud of him as the man who “put Pukatawagan on the map.”

~ Robert J. Castel & David Westfall

 Robert J. Castel is Sidney's half-third cousin once removed, and his nephew by adoption; Robert’s mother is the adoptive sister of Sidney Castel.

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.


Puk First Annual Talent Search 2000: Original Song Winners

Special Guest Sidney Castel in performance and discussion
with Bill Hillman and BU students

Pukatawagan Song
Sung by Sidney Castel (Live Version)

Sidney Castel News Feature on CKY-TV
Smaller Faster-Loading Version

May 6, 2002 CBC Interview
With Shelagh Rogers ~ CBC Radio One