Anton Kolstee was born in 1949. He earned his Masters in Ethnomusicology in 1974 from UBC studying the music of the Bella Coola and was awarded the Prize for Musicology. A songbook of the Bella Coola was published using much of his transcriptions.

In 1977, he obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois with his study of the music and ceremony of the Bella Bella/ Heiltsuk Nation. He was a music teacher at the Bella Bella Community School in 1978-1979. Kolstee later taught Native Studies at Carson Graham Secondary School in North Vancouver and was a sessional lecturer in ethnomusicology at UBC.

He has published numerous articles, including "A New Strategy for Native Indian Music Pedagogy" and "Teaching Along Shamanic Lines." He also provided a music entry for the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.


Bella Coola Indian Music: A Study of the Interaction between Northwest Coast Indian Structures and their Functional Context (Ottawa: National Museums of Canada, 1982). Contains analysis of Bella Coola songs with 73 transcriptions.

To Impersonate the Supernatural: Music, Ceremony and Culture of the Bella Bella (Granville Island Pub. 2020) $24.95 978-1-926991-14-6

[BCBW 2020] "First Nations"

To Impersonate the Supernatural: Music, Ceremony and Culture of the Bella Bella by Anton Frederik Kolstee (Granville Island Publishing $24.95)

Review by Alexander Varty, BCBW2020

To Impersonate the Supernatural, Anton Frederik Kolstee’s groundbreaking study of the “music, ceremony and culture of the Bella Bella,” is also his PhD dissertation.

Long in process, Kolstee’s small tome is a work of devoted scholarship—his University of Illinois thesis was successfully defended in 1988—and it offers a comprehensive analysis of what is arguably the most influential branch of Indigenous music from British Columbia’s Northwest Coast. But with its discussion of strophic song, home tones and pitch hierarchy, much of its second half will be incomprehensible to anyone without advanced training in musicology. Complicating matters is the absence of recorded examples, whether offered on an included CD or via an online link.

Of course, to say that To Impersonate the Supernatural is dry, careful and scientific in its approach is also to say that it’s intensively researched, reasoned and blessedly unromantic. Such dualities abound here. If Kolstee doesn’t give recorded examples of the music of the Heiltsuk, it’s because that nation protects its cultural treasures from easy digital dissemination and believes that specific families or individuals own the rights to specific songs. If he for the most part refrains from translating Heiltsuk lyrics, it’s probably because he knows he’s not linguistically equipped to do justice to Heiltsuk cosmology. If he describes form but doesn’t interpret content, that’s a sign of respect. Despite having done first-hand research in Bella Bella and its environs, he knows he’s an outsider looking in, and confines himself primarily to structural rather than social analysis.

Where To Impersonate the Supernatural will be most valuable to the everyday reader comes when it deviates from scientific methodology and delves into cultural history. In his book’s first half, Kolstee situates his research within the wider context of 20th-and late-19th-century anthropology. A fascinating if compressed account of how early ethnologists such as Franz Boas, Edward Curtis and Marius Barbeau represented and misrepresented Northwest Coast culture leads into a discussion of how music fits into Indigenous ceremony today. Kolstee makes the valuable point that—in its ceremonial role, at least—song is but one part of a sophisticated multimedia artform in which music, dance, theatre, sculpture, regalia and story are intrinsically intertwined. And while he again resists definitive interpretation, he stresses that the ‘Cáiqa and Auláxa ritual cycles of the Heiltsuk are patterned after seasonal cycles of death, transfiguration and rebirth, and hints that if these operate on a specifically local level—such as the end of the fall berry harvest or the springtime coming of the herring—they also reflect a larger, perhaps even cosmic, sense of scale.

There’s much more work to be done in these areas, of course, and it’s important to point out that Kolstee began his research in 1978, when he spent a year as a music teacher in the Bella Bella school system. That was a very different era in terms of Indigenous empowerment, scholarship and cultural regeneration, and what it tells us is that while To Impersonate the Supernatural is an important publication, it’s now time for Northwest Coast ceremonial practices to be assessed from within, by scholars of Indigenous descent. That’s almost certainly being done as of this writing, so let’s hope that their findings don’t take 30-plus years to come to light!  978-1-926991-14-6

Alexander Varty is an immigrant musician and writer living on unceded Snuneymuxw territory.