Flutes of Peace, Drums of Conscience
Music of Native Americans - Part One: Traditional to Rock to Dub
Until recently, music from Native Americans consisted of field recordings of folk singers or powow music for archives of ethnic studies made by scholars more interested in historical accuracy than in recording quality. In general, there was not much variety or scope in the recorded body of music.I truly believe that the best music comes from great joy or great sorrow. Our Native Americans can point to a history of abuse, massacres, and hundreds of years of neglect, continuing today as the Congress rips apart the funding for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (As a sixth generation white American, I can only hope that *my* ancestors dealt with the tribes in Upstate New York with integrity. There's more than enough white guilt to go around.) Therefore, one would believe that there is a lot of great material there for music, it just hasn't been recorded and disseminated. Luckily for us, all this has been put to rights, thanks to the considerable efforts of a few, very dedicated labels.
Collections of Native American singing and dance music have always been available. Labels such as Music of the World and Arhoolie have recently put out great compilations.
Robbie Robertson who is part Native American has a very well thought out album of music written for the television series "The Native Americans". (Capital, 1994) He is joined by many well-known Native American musicians including Rita Coolidge, the jazz singer Pura Fe on the haunting "Macht Jchi-Heartbeat Drum Song"; the rock bands Ulali and Kashtin; and The Silvercloud Singers. Robertson strives to get these rock and roots bands heard outside of their circle of appreciators. He wraps them in this theme album with fine production and sensitive yet powerful music.
The singer/songwriter John Trudell's songs are full if righteous anger against a system that has compiled reams of FBI files on his activities. His albums out on Ryko are "Johnny Damas and Me" (1994) and "AKA Graffiti Man" (1992). His format is rock band and his voice is of indignation is ahead of his time. If anyone should profit from the good fortune of the Native Americans recently, I hope it is him.
But the real movement in Native American music today is in combination with Black Native Americans, and nowhere is this better portrayed than in "Dancing On John Wayne's Head" (love that title!) (Extreme) by the Canadian collective The Fire This Time. The talents of John Trudell, The Eagleheart Singers, Mikey Dread, and First Nations contributors from Greenland, Jamaica, and India are brought together in this very important recording. In this album, dub and raggae combine with Native American singing, chanting, and spoken word. It creates an atmosphere devoid of fear and hate but full of pride and purpose. Here the listener can learn and appreciate what is good about all mankind. The Fire This Time was the driving force behind the 1991 album "Till The Bars Break" (Maya Records). This album chronicled the Mohawk Nation gun battle and standoff with the New York State and Canadian authorities several years ago. Music from Henry Kaiser, James Henry, the Beatnigs, and many others combine with the spiritual poetry by Okanagan writer and artist Jeannette Armstrong combine to engage and enrage the listener. Hopefully, Extreme will be re-releasing this out-of-print album shortly. So as you can see, there are many ways to appreciate this culture and their music.
Connecticut where I live is blessed with some of the best powwows in the country including many hosted by the Mashantucket Pequots. I recommend you take time to explore the culture of those who were here first. You'll find them receptive, engaging and ready to explain to you in song and story what we've been missing all this time.
(Part Two: Native American Folk Music and Ambient Crossovers)
Brian is the World Music Director at WWUH Radio and writes for their Program Guide under "Voices of The Village". He can be heard filling in for the folk shows 6-9AM, Monday-Friday playing "Folk Music From the Rest of the World" where your ears are tickled and your idea of folk music is expanded. Brian listens mostly these days to Anitas Livs from Scandanavia and to any acoustic music from Vietnam. In April 1996, WWUH produced a concert of music from local diverse ethnic sources called "The Sounds of Hartford". A 12 track CD of that memorable concert is available from WWUH at 860.768.4703 or [email protected]