Music of the First People of The Americas

The Gu-Achi Fiddlers
Old Time O'odham Fiddle Music
Canyon Records (

Back in 1993 I picked up a wonderful anthology of North American folk music the unwieldy title of which resembled that of a doctoral dissertation: Borderlands: From Conjunto to Chicken Scratch, Music of the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and Southern Arizona (Smithsonian Folkways, SF CD40418). One of my favorite cuts, the Gu-Achi Fiddlers' "Ali Oidak Polka," was taken from Old Time O'odham Fiddle Music, a cassette-only release recently reissued on CD as part of Canyon Records' 20-volume "Vintage Collection" of traditional Native American music.

The members of this fiddle band hail from the southern Arizona village of Gu-Achi and belong to the Tohono O'odham (Desert People) Nation. The music reflects Native American, Mexican and European influences and the repertory combines the rhythms of schottisches, polkas, two-steps and mazurkas with the melodies of O'odham ritual dances. The sheer exuberance of this music more than compensates for any lack of technical virtuosity and it is not surprising that the distinctive sound of scratchy twin fiddles led in time to an equally appealing descendent now known as chicken scratch. This album is pure, unadulterated fun. - Ron Alden

Open Circle
Makoché Records ([email protected])

Native American music in this day and age seems to be suffering from an overload of new-age noodling and silly non-Indian wannabes. So it is important when a good one comes along to give it the notice it deserves. I first saw Kevin Locke perform at a festival in New Haven in the summer of '96. He was here to demonstrate the flute music and hoop dancing of his Lakota heritage to a crowd of urban dwellers in the middle of the city. I didn't hold out much hope for his success. Across the way Buffy Ste. Marie was blasting out her latest pop hit at mega-decibels, and here was poor Mr. Locke trying to tell stories about the people of the world, play a flute and teach the audience to dance. Remarkably, he succeeded, and I went away from the performance with a whole lot of respect for the man as a musician, an educator and a person of perseverance.

His new recording has these same qualities, and while someone has convinced him that adding "nature sounds" (all acoustic, no synths) in the studio was a good idea, he overcomes this because his music, and that of the other musicians, singers and dancers joining him on this recording, is so clear. The additional lineup is also global in composition: instruments and players from Africa, South America and Australia add range without interfering with Locke's original material or traditional attitude. If there is an example of all this to be had on Open Circle it is certainly the opening track. Here is a song written in the 1790s by an English seafarer who transported slaves for a living, found salvation in adversity, and wrote a world-famous hymn. "Amazing Grace," as performed here by African percussionists, Native American flutes and singers, is a potent welcome to the continent, a starting point for hearing what underlies all of Kevin Locke's work. - CF

Tiwahe (ti-wah-heh)
Makoché ([email protected])

In late summer throughout the Dakotas, out on the Reservations, Sissy Goodhouse and her family perform at local powwows. The big festivals are either at Eagle Butte, Pine Ridge, or Rosebud. But every weekend, there is always a powwow somewhere. Goodhouse is Lakota (Sioux), and a resident of the Standing Rock Reservation at Ft. Yates, North Dakota, where she works as a substance abuse counsellor. She also loves to sing, and has worked with other artists, such as flutist Kevin Locke in the past.

Her second album, Tiwahe (Lakota for "Family"), is a collection of traditional style Native American songs sung by Sissy Goodhouse, her family and friends. Most of the album was recorded live in the studio with ambient sounds of a summer powwow added for effect.

While traditional style recordings by American Indian women are nothing new, they are difficult to find, often confined to smaller labels. Most Indian music is aimed at a crossover market, whether New Age or Folk. "Tiwahe" is nothing like that; it is a family portrait, rich in character, singing praises to great warriors, the foundation of the family, and the strength of women. Most of the songs are performed by Goodhouse alone, singing a capella in her native Lakota. Her voice, sweet yet mourning, captures the spirit of her people, promoting her culture in a manner that is true to heart.

Technically, this album is less than perfect, and quite sparse on its production. But that is exactly what makes "Tiwahe" so wonderful. Unlike previous projects, the producers at Makoche have resisted tampering with the purity of its presentation. "Tiwahe" presents not only a picture of the Goodhouse family, but also a portrait of the Lakota people. - Wayne Whitwam

John Trudell
AKA Grafitti Man

The Sioux, poet, actor and activist joins forces with Jesse Ed Davis to make an album of his spoken words and Jesse Ed's hard rocking music. Trudell's poetry is blunt rather than lyrical, a scrawl that passes on the news of the reservation, the city, and the world. From the "Bombs Over The Baghdad" to "Somebody's Kid," he paints those crude pictures that speak to a crude world. The drugs, the alcohol, the money lures and promised cures are all up on that wall. Rock and roll, blues guitars, and Quiltman's Indian chants and drums bring the spirit of the reservation and the news of the world to your ears and your mind. - CF

Various Artists
The Rough Guide to Native American Music
World Music Network (

As seen through the culture of the Zuni people of Arizona and New Mexico, the Sunrise is something to sing to, to pray to, and to rejoice in. This is plain in Chester Mahooty's "Zuni Sunrise Song" which starts off this collection of music from Native Americans. The best thing about this album is its choice of variety, breadth and substance. Modern currents in Native American music include the contributions of women, traditional uses of music, and the many crossovers. This album is a great starting point for a musical traveler. Native American women have been making great music (even before Buffy Sainte Marie). Included are fundamental cuts from to the far reaching trio Walela (Rita Coolidge, her sister Priscilla, and Priscilla's daughter Laura Satterfield), and folk renderings of Sharon Burch, Judy Trejo and Joanne Shenandoah (a personal favorite because of her rich voice and superb production).

The producers seem to understand the importance of traditional songs to Native Americans. The listener will soon understand the difference among the powwow songs and their use by the people. Primeaux and Mike's "Healing Song" is used in the Native American church. The Garcia Brothers, the Blackstone Singers, Cornel Pewewardy and the Black Lodge Singers sing powwow songs for certain dances, ceremonies, and even a kid's tribute to that Native American icon: Mickey Mouse!

Modern influences have been captured by WithOut Rezervation, who generate techno/funk outlets to their anger and pride. (See also the seminal album by Basslines and Ballistics: Dancing on John Wayne's Head). Jazz/traditional/ambient crossovers of R. Carlos Nakai, Robert Tree Cody and Burning Sky show a more serene use of the traditions. The producers have included excellent examples of these genres and have avoided the many less than wonderful crossovers available.

However, the Rough Guide makes one very European mistake, in my eyes, at least. Native Americans include the people of our present day Latin America and the Arctic people, whose music is lacking in this collection. A song of the Maya or Inuit peoples, though less developed, would better round out the collection. But this should not deter the listener from picking up this superb album - and several others while you're at it - and discovering the wide range of musical expression available to us from our elder brothers and sisters. - Brian Grosjean

Various Artists
Spirit Nation
V2 Records

In my mind, World Music has a standard to meet. Is there a cultural context to which this music belongs? Is there a root that this sprout is attached to? If you shook this music over the ground of the original people, would they recognize any of it?

The opening of Spirit Nation tells the whole story: Native American musical phrases and words, traditional drums and cedar flute interlaced with techno soundtrack, ambient soundscapes, and rootless synth melodies. It all sounds nice for a while, but today this is not experimental (see anything put out years ago by Silver Wave records), nor is it the best of the genre (ambient crossover). To its credit, this album is well performed, nicely produced and can be listened to from end to end without much effort. But is there a connection? Does it matter? Does there need to be a root in some tradition, or are we to expect that every cultural tradition can be distilled to fit within a dance track so us westerners can enjoy it? That is the question raised in me when I listened. Let me know what happened to you! - Brian Grosjean

Various Artists
Tribal Fires

With so many releases of Native American music available, it is nice to find a collection of wonderful music that is not awash with flutes and new age electronica. Tribal Fires culls some of the finest contemporary Native America music available and tastefully features it as a single collection. These songwriters draw from their ancestral roots to highlight their compositions. But it is music that freely borrows from other elements. For example, Robert Mirabal on "Witch Hunt" melds African rhythms and Australian didgeridoo to Native American chants to create a powerful impression. While many of the stylings are similar, giving the album a unifying theme, the wide diversity of the presentations keeps the overall sound fresh. Simple pastoral songs by Quiltman and Joanne Shenandoah are juxtaposed next to the urban frenzy of Lunar Drive's "Mo'Bridge South Dakota" (someday this misplaced obsession with Native American 'techno' will run its course).

Clearly the strength of the album is greater than the sum of its parts, and their placement. It's easy to forgive Keith Secola's cliched use of running the tribal elders through the reverb effect on "For Our Ancestors," when immediately following it is the unplugged version of Ulali's "Mahk Jchi," a song so beautiful it needs no extra production. Tribal Fires serves as an excellent introduction to a handful of artists that are blazing new trails in contemporary Native American music. Songwriters like Jerry Alfred, Joanne Shenandoah and Robert Mirabal are showcased here, giving them some well-deserved recognition. Tribal Fires is just one collection of Native American music on Earthbeat! records, that also includes a compilation of meditative flute music (Tribal Winds) and singers (Tribal Voices). -Wayne Whitwam

Vince Two Eagles
In America

Sounds of America Records (SOAR)

I first met Vince Two Eagles during the Northern Plains Tribal Arts Festival, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota in September 1995. The festival is the largest Native American arts fair outside of Santa Fe (New Mexico). Vince had agreed to play an in-studio performance during my Saturday afternoon program at KAUR. We had a total of four artists who came through the studio that day, all who performed at the festival. Two Eagles had just self-released his CD In America, a collection of folk guitar music seasoned with wooden flute and Lakota lyrics. The CD is now available on SOAR. His songs were touching; songs of lost love and the lost land, times that once were but are now gone. His 'unplugged' studio performance at KAUR�Vince with his guitar, his neice on drum�seemed especially moving.

His album captures much of that same spirit. His songs are simple, yet powerful. While the album's production casts an air of innocence. It is a feeling of quaintness: that feeling that we have stumbled upon a great discovery and we are the first to have arrive at this place. It is that feeling I had when I stumbled upon this great songwriter, and then realized he only lived an hour from my house. A man from the "Middle-of-Nowhere, South Dakota," a man from an Indian Reservation who makes beautiful music.

Unfortunately, it is also the CD's production that strips away that feeling of first discovery. The occasional whitewash of a cheap Yamaha synthesizer just buries some of these songs. It's an album that tries too hard. This is not to say that Two Eagles is beyond praise as a songwriter and a performer. I had hoped for a rework of the album, at least a remix; something that would turn a good album into a great album. But it is unlikely that will happen. Two Eagles has contracted for one more album with SOAR, an Indian flute album that should appear in mid-1998. And then he says he wants to move on, to play the blues, "raz" as he calls it�jazz from the Rez. In America is one album that could have changed the face of Native American popular music. It was a diamond, but a rough one at that. Poor production, marketing and distribution buried the disc before anyone had an opportunity to hear it. �Wayne Whitwam

Wood That Sings: Indian Fiddle Music Of The Americas
Smithsonian Folkways

Here is an interesting anthology of songs performed by native Americans. My first reaction to these recordings was that they were old. While much of the material may be, the recordings are all of relativley recent vintage. The most wonderful aspect of this release is the way the works are placed in relation to one another, almost like a musical map. It begins in Bolivia with a piece simply titled 'Violin' from Jose Enrique Benitez. We are moved from there to Colombia, Peru, Venezuela, Agentina, Ecuador, Guatamala, and into Mexico. At this point you realize what is happening stylistically as we progress northward. Familiar western styles begin to emerge, epecially when Mexico emerges.

From there we move into Arizona, and from there, clear up to Cape Bretton. Mi'Kmaq group the Lee Cremo Trio play relatively straight forward Cape Bretton style fiddle music much to my surprise. It becomes more of a tribute to native musicians themselves than another collection of traditional songs, otherwise obscure. When we arrive in Manitoba, the styles bend more toward country fiddling even including a bit of the 'Orange Blossom Special'. In the US, stops are made in Alaska, Wisconsin, and North Dakota. One of the highlights for me was Jimmie Laroque, a Chippewa from Norht Dakota and 'Road To Batoche', a song which reminded me of 'Jerusalem's Ridge', one of my all-time favorite fiddle-tunes. Another high-point is Georgia Wettlin-Larsen, Assiniboine Nakota from Wisconsin performing 'Turkey In The Straw' including vocals in both English and her native language. - Jonathan Colcord


After veteran songstress Rita Coolidge recorded the exquisite "Cherokee" for a collection of contemporary Native American music, she formed this group to explore the new territory she had opened up for herself. Calling upon their Native American heritage and their musical roots in gospel, Walela has created a singular album for herself akin to The Neville Brothers' "Yellow Moon."

Walela is Coolidge, her sister Priscilla, and Priscilla's daughter Laura Satterfield. Teamed with producer Jim Wilson, they create a lush choral voice that hovers over a spare but beautiful accompaniment of electronics and Native American drums and rattles. The result fuses spirituality and art, simultaneously calling to mind gospel, Native American traditional music and Brian Eno's diaphanous synthesizers. - Marty Lipp

Jerry Alfred And The Medicine Beat
Nendaa - Go Back
Red House

Many years ago Folkways released a remarkable album called Turtle Island Music that included music from some northern U.S. native communities. One of the remarkable and revealing things about that album was that it included songs that seemed to have as much influence from French, white American and Irish music as they did with the pre-Columbian cultures of the region. It also included a few tracks by a reservation rock band, complete with fuzz-box guitars and pounding kit drums. It opened up a new image of Indian culture, one that wasn't locked in the past, but was determined to be as contemporary as the rest of the American landscape.

Jerry Alfred seems to have distilled that idea into a vibrant new music that is contemporary, ancient, romantic and political. hailing from northeastern Yukon in Canada, Alfred is bringing the message south on this second Red House release of his music. What carries this message is a mix of sixties rock and First Nations story-telling. But unlike so much of the ridiculous new age pandering that goes on when a non-Indian musician gets his hands on a frame drum, The Medicine Band is assertively mixing rock and tradition in songs that acknowledge the contemporary world but are only willing to accept it on their own terms. The songs speak of the cruelty of white schools set up to orphan the children of previous generations, of the strangeness of returning to traditional ways after travelling far away, of how the old ways and the new ways both co-exist and resist one another.

The music itself drifts between drum and voice songs and full-blown (and occasionally overblown) rock. But there are unique touches everywhere that keep it moving ahead. Accordions and fiddles pull in country/Irish feelings. An ambient marimba may have no place in the tradition, but it is a perfect, icy touch to a song. Lyrics and spoken word mix English and Tuchone, telling ancient folk tales and modern stories. The Medicine Band is a good cure for pseudo-native new age, the over abundance of boring singer-songwriters and uninspired new rock. - CF

Jerry Alfred And The Medicine Beat
Etsi Shon - Grandfather Song
Red House Records ([email protected])

There's been a whole lot of indigenous rip-offs in the music world lately, labels and artists who take the music of first peoples from around the world and make them marketable and cute for the pop music public, whether it's the digeridoo of Australia or the drum of North America. It's damn refreshing when someone realizes the real beauty of the music lies with its originators. Jerry Alfred And The Medicine Beat are a contemporary North American band with roots as deep as time itself. Etsi Shon - Grand father Song is an album of "native American" music that is neither bound by tradition nor destroyed by its timeliness. It's a strange mix of acoustic drum and voice music and a bent for 60s style acid guitars, a swirling mix that makes each track a surprise, yet never seems to be a cheap appropriation of the ancient to produce the modern. - CF P>

Basslines and Ballistics
Extreme USA ([email protected])

At twenty minutes, this is a concise, incisive look at native cultures in the modern world. Founder Pat Andrade has brought together an amazing cast of characters to bring a message of liberation and progress. Politi-dub master Oku Onuora makes his first appearence in a multi-cultural band, along with with folks from Africa, North and South America, the Caribbean and the north Atlantic. John Trudell, Chuck D and a host of other speakers raise their voices to the musical and social cause of unity between p eoples in a slow grooving, bass heavy dub travelogue/dialogue. Of partcular note is "Ohtokin," Onuora's slow building chant over a simple piano, bass and drum tells of the trials of disenfranchisement suffered by the "first nation" peoples. In its steady pace is a history of shame vs pride, faith vs theft.

And while on this subject, I want to step outside the music and recommend a book by James Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me (The New Press, NY). Here is a lightly written expose of the American history text book, its lies and ommissions brought to light in colorful, scathing looks at the primary sources (letters, documents, etc) and how drastically they vary from the twelve most popular texts used in the school systems throughout the country. Even a history buff will find shocking the reality of some of the "truths" we were raised with. Loewne takes a particularly hard look at racial and native history as taught through the American myths of origin and growth (Plymouth Rock and the Civil War being prime targets) in inciteful, well illustrated and documented prose. - CF

Heartbeat: Voices Of First Nations Women
Smithsonian Folkways

With all the rush to get out recordings and TV programs about native Americans this summer, in a blaze of pop and syntho-new- age digitalia, here is a precious statement of what the music is really about. Here are women from all over the continent, singing the songs their grandmothers sang, and singing the songs they wrote and will sing to their grandchildren. Some are old, sung in the tradition, others are as fresh and innovative as anything around, yet all have a common thread of perseverance, hope and deep roots of respect. In the contemporary mix of Joanne Shenandoah or Buffy Ste. Marie, the vibrant a capella of The Six Nations Women Singers or the solo voice of Nancy Richardson, these 34 tracks offer a wide perspective, a vital common link that should be important to all people from all parts of North America and beyond. - CF

A Native American Odyssey: Inuit to Inca
Putumayo Records (

This compilation of music represents some of the best of today's Fourth World culture. The roots of this music lie buried deep in the soil of the new world, and the shoots that have sprouted show the strength and diversity of this land and its people. The album goes from North (Kashtin and Tudjaat - Canadian Inuit) to South (Expresi�n- Peruvian Andes) to include examples of acoustic, folk rock, Brazilian jazz and Andean music. For me, the high point was Marlui Miranda's knockout singing on "Aruruna." Sadly missing, though, are traditional powwow songs and the new Black Indian beat. (You may want to add The Rough Guide to Native American Music to this for a more complete collection). Putumayo's recognizable, always cute folk art cover adds to the enjoyment of the album. All in all, this compilation is a very listenable collection of Native Music that fits together well, compelling the astute listener to wonder aloud to anyone who will listen, "Where has this music been hiding all this time?" - Brian Grosjean

Back to the top

return to rootsworld Will You Subscribe?