In Other Words Heart­beat, War­ble, and the Elec­tric Pow­wow: Amer­i­can In­dian Mu­sic by Craig Har­ris and Asegi Sto­ries: Chero­kee Queer and Two-Spirit Mem­ory by Qwo-Li Driskill

by Craig Har­ris, Univer­sity of Ok­la­homa Press, 267 pages

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS -

In the 1960s, Cana­dian First Na­tions singer Buffy Sainte-Marie both wowed and baf­fled her fans in the Green­wich Vil­lage folk mu­sic re­vival scene with her mouth bow and her oc­tave-span­ning war­ble. She also hap­pened to write ex­cep­tional pop songs. Among her cred­its are “Univer­sal Sol­dier,” “Cod’ine,” “Lazarus,” and “Up Where We Be­long” of An

Officer and a Gen­tle­man fame. Joni Mitchell dueted with her, Bar­bara Streisand cov­ered her, Kanye West sam­pled her, and Bob Dy­lan sang her praises.

Though adopted and raised by white par­ents in Maine and Mas­sachusetts, she re­turned of­ten to her birth­place in the Pi­apot Plains Cree First Na­tion Re­serve in Saskatchewan, a move that not only strength­ened her cul­tural roots but also built her for­mi­da­ble singing voice. “Crit­ics, ri­vals, and un­knowl­edge­able peo­ple scolded me and warned me that I was go­ing to ruin my voice, be­cause of how strong I sang in ranges, vol­umes, and tim­bres that they’d never heard be­fore,” Sainte-Marie says in Heart­beat, War­ble, and the Elec­tric Pow­wow: Amer­i­can In­dian Mu­sic, mu­si­cian and jour­nal­ist Craig Har­ris’ in­ti­mate sur­vey of North Amer­i­can In­dian mu­sic in the 20th and 21st cen­turies. “They had never been around pow­wow singers who sang all night with strength and power.”

Sainte-Marie seems to have em­bod­ied many of the ex­pe­ri­ences faced by Na­tive Amer­i­can mu­si­cians. She strad­dled Na­tive tra­di­tions and pop rel­e­vance; she toured glob­ally while tend­ing a small-scale farm at home. And like many Na­tive Americans who achieved celebrity, she used her pub­lic plat­form to ad­vo­cate for In­dian po­lit­i­cal causes — a step that got her black­listed from Amer­i­can ra­dio be­gin­ning in the early 1970s, even as her fame sky­rock­eted abroad in Europe and Aus­tralia.

She dis­cov­ered the black­list­ing in the late 1980s when a ra­dio sta­tion in­ter­viewer apol­o­gized to her, “for hav­ing gone along with let­ters that he’d re­ceived in the 1960s from then-Pres. Lyn­don John­son’s ad­min­is­tra­tion com­mend­ing him for sup­press­ing my mu­sic.”

“I was flab­ber­gasted,” Sain­teMarie says in the book, af­ter get­ting the chance to re­view her de­clas­si­fied FBI files in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. “I didn’t want to be­lieve it, but it ex­plained the sud­den drown­ing of what had been a huge ca­reer — the dis­ap­pear­ance of big-time na­tional tele­vi­sion shows, movies, record sales, and ma­jor mag­a­zine sto­ries. I did not know that politi­cos in the John­son and Nixon White House were mak­ing nasty phone calls be­hind my back to sink my ca­reer. Who would think some­thing like that? I just thought that peo­ple’s taste had changed.”

Pol­i­tics be damned, well into her sev­enth decade Sainte-Marie con­tin­ues to write hit songs, win awards, and ex­per­i­ment with a num­ber of gen­res rang­ing from elec­tron­ica to coun­try while draw­ing sell­out crowds in Europe, Asia, and Aus­tralia. While her on­go­ing global pop­u­lar­ity may be ex­cep­tional for a Na­tive mu­si­cian, her com­mit­ment to singing as a ve­hi­cle for so­cial change and tribal unity re­flects the way many Na­tive mu­si­cians have pur­sued ca­reers in mu­sic.

Har­ris has com­piled more than a hun­dred pro­files of Na­tive Amer­i­can pro­duc­ers, classical mu­si­cians, DJs, and record-la­bel own­ers as well as coun­try, reg­gae, folk, and punk singers in this im­pres­sively re­searched vol­ume. The book grew out of mag­a­zine ar­ti­cles he be­gan writ­ing in the 1990s on pow­wow mu­sic, where he learned that while some Na­tive mu­si­cians per­form to pre­serve tra­di­tion, many more use their mu­si­cal her­itage as a launching point to cre­ate blues, classical, reg­gae, and elec­tron­ica steeped in their roots.

For in­stance, Keith Secola (Anishi­naabe/Ital­ian), a Min­nesota mu­si­cian de­scribed as “the Bob Dy­lan of Amer­i­can In­dian Mu­sic,” mixed pow­wow mu­sic with folk and blues to cre­ate “NDN Kars,” now a classic bar boast song about driv­ing to a pow­wow in a car held to­gether with lit­tle more than bumper stick­ers and hope. De­spite hav­ing lost hear­ing in his right ear due to a brain tu­mor, Secola found mi­nor fame in the 1990s, open­ing for David Bowie, Pearl Jam, Nir­vana, and the Neville Brothers.

In other chap­ters, Har­ris digs deeper to look at the his­tory of record la­bels that first be­gan record­ing tra­di­tional Na­tive Amer­i­can mu­sic. He con­sid­ers the story of the Amer­i­can In­dian Sound­chiefs, an in­flu­en­tial la­bel founded in the 1940s by Rev. Linn Pauahty (Kiowa), who recorded more than 4,000 tribal chants, songs, and dances over four decades. Though not a mu­si­cian him­self — his back­ground was in min­istry and an­i­mal hus­bandry — Pauahty launched his record la­bel to help Na­tive Americans re­cover their spir­i­tu­al­ism through song.

In con­trast, Canyon Records, which has been re­leas­ing tribal mu­sic record­ings for decades for a largely Na­tive Amer­i­can au­di­ence, was founded by a man who had no prior con­nec­tion to In­dian cul­ture or mu­sic. Record-la­bel head Ray Bo­ley was a Phoenix res­i­dent who recorded Navajo singer Ed Lee Natay to cre­ate a sound­track for a lo­cal theater pro­duc­tion. The epony­mous 1951 al­bum has re­mained con­tin­u­ously in print, pay­ing roy­al­ties for more than six decades, while the Grammy-win­ning la­bel re­mains strong, hav­ing sur­vived the death of its founders and its key orig­i­nal record­ing mu­si­cians.

While Har­ris’ book shines a light on the di­ver­sity of gen­res that con­tem­po­rary Na­tive Amer­i­can mu­si­cians write and per­form, he also makes a strong case for those try­ing to pre­serve a mu­si­cal form whose roots reach back thou­sands of years and have sur­vived count­less at­tempts to ex­tin­guish them. — Casey Sanchez

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