Tag: Native American music

Native Experimentalists

I started writing this article in what is presently called La Villita in northern New Mexico. These are the lands of Puebloan people, more specifically Ohkay Owingeh, as well as Jicarilla Apache. I’m finishing the article in Muwekma Ohlone lands, presently called the San Francisco Bay Area.

Thanks to NewMusicBox for inviting me to write this article. It’s an honor for me to help bring attention to the vital and extremely varied work of Native artists and communities who are historically, and presently, otherwise too often under-known and overlooked. I’m not an authority on this extensive subject, and I identify as a musician first and foremost. All the same, I recognize that I have accrued some knowledge, personal experience and relationships over the years that I can draw upon. I’m deeply honored to have been entrusted with such a task.

It’s an honor for me to help bring attention to the vital and extremely varied work of Native artists and communities who are historically, and presently, otherwise too often under-known and overlooked.

For years now, I’ve been a regular contributor to First American Art Magazine (FAAM) which is devoted to the work of Native artists of this continent. I’ve also had writings published in Full Moon Magazine (Prague), an Anthology of Essays on Deep Listening for Pauline Oliveros’s 80th birthday and most recently Three Fold Press out of Detroit. I’ve learned so much through these processes and from the various editors! I never set out to be a published writer; it’s been a rewarding adventure for me in a lot of ways.

Here I’ll be focusing first and foremost on three Native experimental musicians (Raven Chacon, Nathan Young, and Laura Ortman) who I have had personal experiences with as well as the scenes and communities that they’ve cultivated over the years plus brief segments on three musicians whose work I have covered as a contributor to FAAM (Warren Realrider, Jacqueline Wilson, and Michael Begay).

I first met Raven Chacon (Diné) in 2010 while on a cross-country tour with my Italian band Tsigoti. Raven was involved in a loose knit organization called Coalmine Kollektiv that presented our show in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Since then, we’ve become good friends and collaborators. I’ve covered much of his work in reviews and profiles for FAAM, and we have published works together as a duo including a recent recording of our performance at Array Music in Toronto for my Astral Spirits Traveling Sessions series. As a presenter and space holder for artists, Raven’s been involved in many organizations over the years while maintaining his own community art and music spaces like Small Engine and Spirit Abuse as well as his record label Sicksicksick Distro. I played shows with Raven, John Dieterich, and Jeremy Barnes in both of these community centers and have been able to take in many shows at both that provide opportunities for musicians who have little or no available venues otherwise. On top of that he’s a remarkably prolific composer, working on commissions regularly for performers and performances around the world.

My initial exposure to Raven’s work came from his involvement in Postcommodity, which is a Native artists collective based in the Southwest. At that time the core members included Cristóbal Martínez (Chicano), Kade L. Twist (Cherokee), Steven Yazzie (Navajo/Laguna), and Nathan Young (Delaware Tribe of Indians/Pawnee/Kiowa). The work of Post-Commodity utilizes any and all artistic disciplines and mediums to articulate a myriad of viewpoints, perspectives and expressions. From their website: “Postcommodity’s art functions as a shared Indigenous lens and voice to engage the assaultive manifestations of the global market and its supporting institutions, public perceptions, beliefs, and individual actions that comprise the ever-expanding, multinational, multiracial and multiethnic colonizing force that is defining the 21st Century through ever-increasing velocities and complex forms of violence.”

The collective provided cover art for two albums from my Estamos Project; jimpani kustakwa ka jankwariteecherï by Estamos Ensemble on Edgetone Records and People’s Historia by Estamos Trio (Carmina Escobar and Milo Tamez) on Relative Pitch Records. jimpani kustakwa ka jankwariteecherï is a direct translation of “compositions and improvisations” in the P’urhépecha language which is mostly spoken in rural communities in the highlands of Michoacán, México, where our violinist Julián Martínez Vázquez was born and presently lives. Postcommodity provided a photo of a graphic score made from ground coal, salt, and rock from the dead Gila River which was part of a larger mixed-media installation called Worldview Manipulation Therapy. The piece was exhibited in 2009 at The Ice House in Phoenix. Worldview Manipulation Therapy “… draws upon the ephemeral, transformative and esoteric aspects of tribal ceremonies — central to the Indigenous worldview.” It’s a reexamination of the on-going postcolonial stress enforced by globalization and neoliberalism. The graphic score was the centerpiece of the overall installation incorporating traditional tribal geometries.

Drumhead from the installation Worldview Manipulation Therapy

Worldview Manipulation Therapy – 2009.
Multichannel video, sound and mixed-media installation. Duration: 12 Hours.
from the installation view at The Ice House, Phoenix, AZ.

A bladder of blood was placed inside the cavity of the gutted deer dripping blood periodically onto the drum that was then effected and amplified throughout the plaza. The piece was created in response to the 400th anniversary of Santa Fe from the Indigenous perspective.

The cover for Estamos Trio’s People’s Historia was a close up of a blood soaked Pueblo drum which was part of a public installation in the Santa Fe Plaza in 2010 titled “P’oe iwe naví ûnp’oe dînmuu/My Blood is in the Water” (mule deer taxidermy, wood poles, water, amplifier, drum). The collective hung a deer in the center of the plaza above a ceremonial drum fixed with contact mics. A bladder of blood was placed inside the cavity of the gutted deer dripping blood periodically onto the drum that was then effected and amplified throughout the plaza. The piece was created in response to the 400th anniversary of Santa Fe from the Indigenous perspective. It’s a tribute to the traditional relationship between people and food/nature in the region. “‘My Blood is in the Water’ is a counter-metaphor critiquing the dominant culture’s process of commoditization, demand/supply and convenience.” It is an expression of the continuity between the present Indigenous culture and the past.

A close-up of the drumhead from the installation My Blood is in the Water.

A close-up of the drumhead from the installation My Blood is in the Water.

Through Raven and Postcommodity I’ve developed a friendship and working relationship with Nathan Young (Delaware/Pawnee/Kiowa), and have been exposed to and written about the work of Jacqueline Wilson (Yakama), Michael Begay (Diné), and Warren Realrider (Pawnee/Crow) for FAAM.

Nathan Young is a Tulsa Arts Fellow and former member of Postcommodity. He’s presently enrolled in the Native American Art History Ph.D. program at the University of Oklahoma which is the first and only program that approaches the study of Native American Art from a critical perspective rather than within the field of anthropology. I’ve had the fortune to write about Nathan’s work a variety of times for FAAM as well to spend time in his community both participating in and witnessing his work as an artist and presenter. Since I’m on the road perpetually, I have the opportunity to experience the work of others as I travel. This is one of the reasons I’ve been such a regular contributor to FAAM, primarily when I was writing solely about visual art. Sometimes my touring is dense, moving from one city to the next night after night and sometimes it’s more relaxed and allows me the privilege to spend time within communities and scenes, to both collaborate with and document other artists. My partner ACVilla and I have a duo project, Silver Ochre, which is focused on the creation of video art and documentaries that are engaged in social justice issues and the needs of communities. So all of this lends itself naturally to writing about the work of others. That said, in 2018 I was invited by Nathan to perform a multimedia work of Silver Ochre’s as part of his Tulsa Noise programming which was facilitated by the Tulsa Artist Fellowship. I spent three days there getting to know fellows and faculty as well as Nathan and his work as an artist and presenter. (The fellowship has been in existence since 2015, prioritizing opportunities for Native American artists and artists of color.)

Everyone’s standing around a pickup truck they are using as a big drum. A certain kind of extended technique!

Following those few days in Tulsa, Nathan and I drove up to Kansas City for the opening of his art show “Night Music of the Southern Plains American Indian” at the Center for Contemporary Practice at KCAI Crossroads Gallery. (I wrote about this show in the Spring 2019 issue of FAAM.) Situated in two different rooms of the gallery, one room was dedicated entirely to a sacred experience of Peyote, the culture and the ceremony. The other, much larger room included an old pickup truck facing a projection on a screen. The projection was documentation from the opening concert that was held in the parking lot of the gallery. Nathan invited the Southern Thunder Singers to perform what is called 49 music. These are songs typically sung at after parties the nights following powwows, out on back roads or fields, with everyone standing around a pickup truck they are using as a big drum. A certain kind of extended technique! The truck was then brought into the gallery and placed with its headlights facing a screen on which was projected the documentation of the concert. The show ended a month later with students of Dwight Frizzell’s at KCAI performing a graphic score on the amplified truck. The idea was to perform the truck from a western perspective, with a score that the students interpreted with transducers, baseball bats, contact mics, and chalk while Nathan processed the Elton John song “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” through his laptop.

Jacqueline Wilson is a bassoonist and serves on the faculty at Washington State University. She’s just begun recording an album of works for bassoon by Native composers including Raven Chacon, Juantio Becenti (Diné), Gillian Whitehead (Maori), and the late Louis W. Ballard (Cherokee/Quapaw), slated to be completed in late 2022. She also recently commissioned a work for bassoon and marimba called Nocturne by Connor Chee (Diné). With another bassoonist (Stephanie Willow Patterson, Columbus State University), she is preparing a work by Elizabeth A. Baker titled Collective Collaborative.

Performance of Bluebirds by Juantio Becenti in Montezuma Creek UT on the Navajo Nation
Jacqui Wilson – Bassoon
Yuko Kato – Piano

Michael Begay (Diné) is a tireless creative force playing in metal bands like Akklamation, which he and his brother started in 2005, as well as writing commissions and teaching in the Native American Composer Apprentice Project, which has been part of the Grand Canyon Music Festival since 2001.

In 2018-2019 Michael was the Composer-in-Residence with the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra. Recent commissions include a work for Orchestra Northern Arizona, a solo composition for the Italian pianist Emanuele Arciuli, a string quartet for Black Dog String Quartet, and a duo for violin and piano performed by Stefan Milenkovich and Renata Yazzie (Diné) at Northern Arizona University’s Native American Cultural Center. He was invited to study composition at the Peabody Institute beginning in the Fall 2021.

Premiere of Michael’s newest works as a commission by Shelter Music Boston: “Chiaroscuro”, “Hai (Winter)”, “Cloak of Autumn”

Warren Realrider performs under the moniker of Tick Suck and has been a regular contributor to Tulsa Noise. Warren Realrider (Pawnee/Crow) is a multidisciplinary sound artist based in Norman, Oklahoma. He created the Tick Suck noise performance project in 2016 and has since presented his solo works and sound performance collaborations in varied Tulsa and Oklahoma City settings. His piece IIII Kitapaatu, presented at the Tulsa Noise Fest in 2019, is featured in the forthcoming documentary Love and Fury by Sterlin Harjo. Realrider works within the liminal space between object, function, and ceremony to extract sound sources which are then processed and deconstructed utilizing contemporary music technology. Elements of harsh noise, sound art, and indigenous music are blended into compositions improvised in response to the location, context, and space of Tick Suck performances.

Video by Blackhorse Lowe (Diné) at the 2019 Tulsa Noisefest of Tick Suck (Warren Realrider) playing willow, imitation sinew, cymbal with a contact mic, distortion and feedback.

Warren Realrider’s Unassigned Data at the Oklahoma Contemporary Gallery

Laura Ortman (White Mountain Apache) and I first met through filmmaker Martha Colburn who invited us to provide live musical accompaniment for a screening of her films at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2009. Laura and I had both worked with Martha for some time before meeting. I was so blown away the first time hearing her and my fascination with Laura as a musician continues to deepen every time I have the opportunity to hear and/or collaborate with her. Laura experiments with cross-disciplinary, genre-bending approaches to music and performance, drawing on both her classical violin training and Indigenous musical traditions. While she plays electric guitar, keyboards, pedal steel guitar, makes field recordings, and sings through a megaphone, her main instrument is her singular violin.

Laura Ortman experiments with cross-disciplinary, genre-bending approaches to music and performance, drawing on both her classical violin training and Indigenous musical traditions.

Six years ago, Laura was one of four Native artists who, through the Artist Leadership Program of the National Museum of the American Indian, the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA) in Santa Fe, was invited to create socially engaged art. In turn, she invited me to participate in her residency by sounding the magnificent Echo Amphitheater north of Abiquiú as well as record with her in the studio she was provided at MoCNA. Laura recorded with a handful of local musicians and blended it all together with field recordings she gathered of the city and region. She described this work as a customized soundtrack of Santa Fe. She also continued this approach to sonic engagement with her work commissioned by Issue Project Room she called Dust Dives Alive. The piece is part of the Isolated Field Recording Series which she published on her Bandcamp account Dust Dive Flash.

In 2016 we met up again at Park Church Co-op in Brooklyn. The evening of four sets was to raise funds and awareness in support of the struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline #nodapl. Her solo performance of violin and effects was incredibly deep and soaring under the vaulted ceilings and the old hardwood. Not long after that I invited her to participate in my residency at Pioneer Works which culminated in a concert of me in trio with Nels Cline and Michael Wimberly as well as a quartet with Laura, Yuka C. Honda, and Ravish Momin. ACVilla provided visuals which she gathered and created during the residency.

Laura’s album My Soul Remainer came out in 2017 which I reviewed for FAAM. Two years later, as a 2019 Whitney Biennial artist, she delivered a  concert that incorporated all of her sonic abilities to an understandably great reception. In that same period, her video, under the same name, debuted at the museum.

Here’s footage of the concert:

Plus the multimedia piece with the great ballet dancer Jock Soto (Diné):

This article makes it clear that there’s a tremendous amount of exciting work being produced by Native musicians. And of course there’s much more to cover beyond what I have here and no doubt much more to come. I think it’s crucial that the perspective of Native America be witnessed through the work of artistic practices.


Cultural Appropriation in Classical Music?

A group of bicycles chained to a rack one of which is just one tire, presumably because the rest of the bike was stolen.

It was my pleasure to attend a banquet honoring my primary composition professor, Chinary Ung, on the occasion of his Grawemeyer award. Full disclosure: I was a graduate student working toward two masters degrees, one in music theory and composition (college of fine arts) and another in the anthropological study of Native American ritual and performance (college of liberal arts). Chinary’s award-winning work, Inner Voices, showcased his Cambodian heritage in an exquisite composition. At the event, the Dean of Fine Arts, Seymour Rosen, who had come to Arizona State University from his directorship at Carnegie Hall, leaned in to me and commented, “Hearing Chinary’s work is the first time I’ve ever heard culture in music.” With my best banquet decorum, I found a conciliatory smile. Inside, my jaw dropped. I had never in my entire life considered music without culture before; culture was a musical fact like gravity. I wondered, was every work ever performed at Carnegie Hall without culture? How could the whole of Western music not have culture when I was certain the music of most every other heritage on earth likely did? Why would anyone characterize Western music as so antithetical to the rest of the globe?

Why would anyone characterize Western music as so antithetical to the rest of the globe?

The discord of the incongruity stuck with me months later. The longer I thought about it on a wider scope, the more I realized, the broader issue was two-fold. First, non-Western traditions are more often than not considered unimportant and rendered invisible in Western music until, for example, a non-Western composer wins a prestigious award. One outcome of genocidal imperialism is that erasing people also erases their music, so the resultant naiveté about Native Americans may sit somewhere along the ignorance-is-bliss scale as a byproduct of ethnic cleansing. Second, there is an air of cultural neutrality in Western classical art music, where music is considered an expression of sound alone, devoid of ancestral roots or indigenous cosmology—a Western birthright that functions as the default mainstay foundation for equitable, objective, unbiased sonority. It’s an aesthetic legacy where the existential postulate, the basic idea of how life operates, denotes Western art music as culturally impartial. Though it seems ironic, acultural neutrality is a narrative the West has culturally taught itself. This perception has been reinforced by important advocates who have spun acultural threads into neutral garments worn uncritically by many conductors, performers, and ensembles. If you’ve ever taken a theory class in music school, you were most likely enrolled in “Music Theory 101,” for example, or “Pedagogy of Music Theory,” when more correctly, those courses should be identified as Western music theory. Similarly, the monolithic Western category of “World Music” impedes understanding the consummate diversity of non-Western traditions. Such illustrations are numerous and systemic.

The monolithic Western category of “World Music” impedes understanding the consummate diversity of non-Western traditions.

From a traditional Native American viewpoint, our music is not invisible and not acultural. It takes Native Americans to create our music, though those outside the cultures may not easily recognize the indigenous characteristics. The attempted erasure of indigenous people has been thorough and relentless. Still, at recent count, there are 573 federally recognized tribal nations—treatied nations—not counting the hundreds of cultures in the Alaska Native villages. We are still here.

Mohican Nation elders outdoors marching with flags at a powwow.

Powwow Grand Entry of Stockbridge-Munsee Band of the Mohican Nation, WI, 2017

So who is Native American? It all comes down to American Indian sovereignty. The United States treatied with American Indians on a nation-to-nation level, recognizing the inherent and legal right for Natives to determine our own lives. The treaties are contracts in exchange for massive amounts of land and resources and are considered the “supreme law of the land,” on the same level as the US Constitution. So, contrary to various claims of family folklore, high cheekbones, or DNA tests, to be considered a Native American, one must be enrolled as a citizen of a specific, federally-recognized tribal nation. Because of sovereignty, in other words, only Native Americans themselves can determine our own citizens.

Nothing about traditional indigenous life is acultural. Traditional Native people know themselves to be related to the earth and to the other inhabitants of the planet, whether those others be human or non-human. Native cosmologies are not hierarchical but reciprocal and operate with existential postulates of barter-and-exchange with the environment or others, not dominion over it. Through a life-and-death process of reciprocity, extended kinship with the earth and others, and the giving and receiving of gifts, Native people strive not for ‘dominion over’ but for balance with the world.

For the West, language is a means of representing something real. But for Native languages, words create reality.

Another aspect of traditional American Indian life is the generative nature of language rather than its being representative of something. For the West, language is a means of representing something real, and words themselves stand for something by denoting it; language personifies what is thought to be ‘really real’ in Western thought. In this way, words are seen as tiny canoes that carry meaning inside them while being sent along a transmission conduit. But for Native languages, words create reality; they spawn it, and are considered generative. Indigenous languages are known to give rise to what is really real. For Native people, life moves along however life is spoken, whether enacted through speech, ceremonially performed, or reciprocated with extended kinship relations. This generative way of perceiving the world is something shared by many indigenous peoples; while these world views are not exactly the same, they bear family resemblances to each other. My primary religious studies professor, Ken Morrison, took stock of the generative nature of Native cosmologies from several indigenous perspectives:

In fact, as has been demonstrated amply for the Navajo (Gill 1977), Yaqui (Yoeme) (Evers and Molina 1987), and Lakota (Bunge 1984; Powers 1986), Native American languages encode the insight that speech is a power all persons share. As Gary Witherspoon (1977) has shown, the Navajo think of language as generative rather than, as in European convention, representative. Navajo speech does not encode realities which might exist independently, objectively apart from itself. In Witherspoon’s interpretation, Navajo words do not mirror reality. Words do not stand for, or as is often said, symbolize any reality apart from themselves. On the contrary, Navajo speech embodies the speaker’s intentionality, and extends the self beyond the body, to shape a reality coming into being… (Morrison 2000)

Most Native languages have no equivalent word for “music” or “art.”

A generative process is how indigenous music works as well, though most Native languages have no equivalent word for “music” or “art.” The closest comparison might be ‘song,’ but that still neglects the generative process at work. Songs are not fixed nouns for indigenous life, so more insight might come from a process of song-ing or music-ing. A traditional Native American view of song-ing would not conceptually match what is understood as “music” in a Western sense.

For Native Americans, the song-ings are considered voicings of the originators, and although sometimes they are communally shared, they cannot be autonomously borrowed away from the originator. Because it is regarded as a generative process, what a Native American enacts with song-ing moves life in that direction; what is sung about happens. When generative song-ing occurs, it’s like birthing out performative sequences of life. No two sequential songs are the same in the process, just as no two successive moments are identical. Indigenous cultures see music like giving birth so that each new song event is a new creation. The song being sung might be a time-honored song, but when performed it is newly reborn—it is not considered the same song.

Moreover, Indigenous song-ing stands in direct contrast to those strains of Western music that assume songs are fixed once written and codified. And because Indian music-ing is not fixed, whatever is recorded or written down is considered a leftover of the process. From an American Indian point of view, fixed music remains, simply, the observable remnants of a music-ing process.

Consider the concert hall experience and that of a powwow.

A lucid example of the Western music aesthetic versus an indigenous one would be to consider the concert hall experience and that of a powwow. In the concert hall, the quality of the sound becomes the preeminent value, conceptually superseding the players and the audience. In a concert hall, the audience and orchestra are kept in separate spaces, and the flow of activity is directed from the orchestra to the audience, which remains seated, silent, and motionless. The performers all wear black to hide any individuality, and concerts are typically appraised on the “ugliness” or “beauty” of their collective sound.

Various people assembled outdoors at a Mohican Nation powwow.

Powwow grounds of Stockbridge-Munsee Band of the Mohican Nation, WI, 2017

At a powwow, the relationships of the participants outweigh all other features for appraising a powwow, including the sound. The performers and participants are often sharing the same space, and there is a high level of interactivity between the two groups, almost to the point of non-distinction. People walk, talk, and move all around the venue at will. The performers wear all manner of bright colors, which accent their individuality, and the general philosophy is to create positive and interactive relationships. Some singers may be better voiced than others, but the value is not placed on the sounds they make. If good relations take place, it is a ‘good’ powwow, regardless of the music. The process of enacting a powwow—the doing of it—is the intrinsic value of a powwow, which in turn values the participants and their activities deeply. It is the relational process that is paramount, not the music.

What about the mixing or sharing of cultures? Obviously, it happens all the time, just as I am simultaneously an enrolled citizen of an indigenous nation and scholastically trained as a modern composer. To be clear, I was not coerced into Western composition but picked it as my chosen career path. That decision was a consequence of mutual culture sharing and a process of balanced acculturation, very different from what we call “forced culture change,” when cultures are forced to change their cosmologies according to the existential postulates of the domineering culture.

What about the mixing or sharing of cultures? Obviously, it happens all the time.

While I chose a path of Western music, there remains part of my history that was not grown of a balanced mutual exchange, as my use of English instead of Mohican, Munsee, or Lenape reveals. My ancestors experienced rampant extermination along with forced cultural change, massive theft of land and resources, coercion to learn English and adopt Western ways, all while facing abuse and death for being indigenous. Our population of 22,000 along the banks of the Mohheconnituck (Hudson River) was reduced to about 200 souls within two generations. Without exaggeration, we barely escaped total annihilation; an eradication capitalized on by James Fenimore Cooper in his novel, The Last of the Mohicans. Forced Culture Change is basically genocide.

So yes, not all cultural exchanges are equivalent. Where adjacent cultures may mix on equal terms, there can be sharing and collaboration. But in many cases in North America where the indigenous people faced eradication and forced culture change, no such equal sharing or collaboration was possible—quite the opposite transpired. As Native Americans, we remember the major culture clashes when colonists with a hard-driving philosophy of “ownership” forced us to give up our lands, waters, resources, languages, cultures, and in many cases, our lives. We were prohibited from enacting our ceremonies under penalty of death. Native Americans today are cultural survivors of the American holocaust, the real world effects of which we still face.

Not all cultural exchanges are equivalent.

One historical co-optation of Native American song-ing in Western music was the American Indianist era, where Native American songs were codified and assimilated into written compositions by non-indigenous composers. Non-Indians composed hordes of pseudo-Indian operas, lieder, piano pieces, and all manner of musical works. Further, the American Indianist appropriations were plagued by an error of reasoning—a kind of musical Darwinism. Rather than attempting to meet indigenous people on equal terms with genuine collaboration, the Indianist composers mistook their poaching of Indian life as the discovery of a ‘primitive’ precursor to their own ‘civilization.’ Spurred on by the written transcriptions of Alice Fletcher, Ruth Underhill, Frances Densmore, and others from the late 1800s into the early 1900s, Indianists were busy gathering Indian songs (as one might pick a bushel of apples), codifying what they thought was true Indian music, and grossly misunderstanding what Indians were really doing. Therefore, we should never consider, for example, Charles Wakefield Cadman’s famous work “From the Land of Sky Blue Waters” (with an Omaha tune transcribed by Fletcher) as an indigenous song—it is not. “Sky Blue Waters” is a Cadman song.

Though American Indianists are of the past, the systemic erasure of indigenous life and music continues today. Minute cultural awarenesses break through sometimes, but often the positive changes we are desperate for are obstructed—innocently or intentionally—by the numerous gatekeepers of Western classical music. Those who share the gatekeeping power to allow-or-block indigenous participation are the consorting composers, conductors, ensembles, financial supporters, marketing executives, performers, producers, reviewers, soloists, theorists, venues, and anyone else swimming in that sizable pool. What’s more, also considering art forms adjacent to Western music, such as modern dance, ballet, theater, movies, and the like, that pool becomes an ocean. To verify the gatekeeping effect by orchestras, specifically, a quick look at the Orchestra Season Analysis published by the Institute for Composer Diversity (ICD) each year reveals how orchestras fare especially low for diversity, participation by Native Americans being among the least of all. Yet a growing number of composers who are federally-recognized Native American citizens are listed in the ICD databases of catalogued works. There are scores of professional composers indigenous to the continent, not to mention the even greater demography of indigenous musicians. It’s woefully dreadful that so much contemporary erasure of indigenous culture is propagated from within the field of Western classical music. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Roomful of Teeth employed one of their members, Caroline Shaw, who is herself non-Inuit, to use Inuit throat singing.

The recent cultural venture by the non-indigenous vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth (RoT) into the world of Inuit music might serve as another case in point. It appears that RoT employed Inuits to teach them a remarkable Inuit activity known as “throat singing”, a musical game structure between two Inuit singers. Then RoT employed one of their members, Caroline Shaw, who is herself non-Inuit, to use Inuit throat singing as part of her composition Partita for 8 Voices. The striking work so excited the award panel that they honored the composer with a Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013. But in 2019, the prominent Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq accused Shaw and RoT of cultural appropriation using Inuit throat singing without proper acknowledgment or compensation.

Because the winning work was perhaps a mixture of many styles, including Inuit throat singing, it would be a difficult task to determine if any legal copyright infringement occurred without delving deeper into all the influences of the composition, and determining what percentage was culturally borrowed. Avoiding the individualistic legal copyright issue, and setting aside the “indigenous intellectual property” issue (an effort by the United Nations to protect the cultural knowledge and collective intellectual property of indigenous people), it does seem to my ears that some measure of cultural appropriation as likely as not occurred with respect to the Inuit culture. In his UCLA doctoral dissertation, Joshua H. Saulle identified Shaw’s partial use of “Inuit throat-singing” as one ingredient in a cultural and musical mix he characterized as “gumbo”:

Shaw’s Courante is dominated … by sounds derived from the practice of katajjak, or Inuit throat-singing. This practice is the basis for the rapid inhale-exhale gestures that form the surface texture of much of the movement, as well as the imitative hocket and gradually-unfolding, procedural structure. The third element in this musical/cultural gumbo is the 1855 hymn ‘Shining Shore’ by George F. Root, which is introduced in the movement’s second large section.

Brad Wells, RoT Founder and Artistic Director, answered Tagaq’s accusation with an anecdote published in Indy Week (Dan Ruccia, 2019) that inferred there is no distinction to be made between a mutually equitable exchange of culture versus America’s unrestrained use of forced cultural change against indigenous people, missing the genocidal backstory of Inuit life specifically, and Native American life generally:

I remember, a few months ago, talking to an anthropology professor who had studied textiles on some Southeast Asian island about how the textiles responded to Westerners coming through from the fifteen-hundreds on. The artists on those islands immediately started to take advantage of Western art aspects, sometimes subtly, sometimes less so. The question of cultural appropriation assumes that the powerful culture is the only one that is involved in the exchange, but in fact these exchanges are happening constantly. There’s an arrogance in our role, thinking of ourselves as the powerful culture and handpicking little things to use to our profit. These exchanges happen everywhere all the time, and you can’t stop them. They can enrich everybody.

Wells has failed, ahistorically and aculturally, to respond to the stern warning that forced culture change teaches.

From his assertion, it appears that Wells insisted all cultural exchange is of the mutually equitable variety that is “happening constantly.” Yet Wells has failed, ahistorically and aculturally, to respond to the stern warning that forced culture change teaches. A quick look at the RoT website reveals the ensemble is “dedicated to mining the expressive potential of the human voice. Through study with masters from singing traditions the world over, the eight-voice ensemble continually expands its vocabulary of singing techniques and, through an ongoing commissioning process, forges a new repertoire without borders.” Respectfully, considering their mission from an indigenous point of view, and acknowledging America’s long term genocidal undertaking against Native Americans, I wonder where cultural acknowledgment and respect—and collaborative equity—might fit into the RoT approach, given Tagaq’s objections. Growing a toolkit of vocal techniques gleaned from cultures around the world sounds a bit acultural to me. And combined with an effort to commission works by folks not from those cultures does sound a bit like cultural appropriation.

Setting aside the RoT discussion, there are reverential ways to collaborate that are neither tokenistic nor exploitive. If non-indigenous composers want to intersect with indigenous life, why not build collaborative relationships with indigenous artists? Despite efforts to eradicate them, for example, the Inuit remain living cultural treasures with whom to develop cultural and professional relationships. And those relations can be personally, culturally, and musically amazing.

Why not build collaborative relationships with indigenous artists?

Once, I was invited to perform throat singing onstage with Lois Suluk in Albuquerque, but as a flutist. I sometimes perform extended flute techniques on my handmade quartz flutes, including whispering, singing and playing, and vocalizing with inhaled-exhaled breathing effects. So, in 2010, I had the privilege and honor to partner in a throat singing exchange with an Inuit singer at the El Rey Theater, and I have the picture to prove it! To this day, Lois remains my colleague and friend. As a Native American myself, and as a professional composer of some experience, I absolutely affirm that relationships with indigenous people are wholly necessary for doing indigenous music of any kind, where true American Indian voices are heard.

Lois Suluk and Brent Michael Davids performing at Albuquerque's El Rey Theater in 2010.

Lois Suluk and Brent Michael Davids performing at Albuquerque’s El Rey Theater in 2010.

Indigenous and non-indigenous people, alike, might encourage each other in meaningful collaboration with living, changing, vibrant cultures in ways that remain dynamic. And conversely, misconstruing and twisting Native American music into something less than authentic is a blunder that can no longer be ignored. As further explanation, I’ve been extremely lucky to have worked firsthand with two renowned ensembles, Chanticleer and Kronos Quartet, who both carried out processes of cultural exchange and commissioning that were artistically enriching and entirely respectful.

I’m grateful to composer Chen Yi, who first introduced me to Chanticleer. Chanticleer then invited me to teach them about indigenous singing styles, exploring those techniques on their own voices, and having in-depth discussions about Native American cultures, especially my own. I explained to Chanticleer much of what I’ve written above, about existential postulates, forced culture change, song-ing, and the life-and-death reciprocity of indigenous cosmologies. Afterward, and subsequently through the years, they have commissioned several works from me; Chanticleer felt it was especially important to contract with me as a Mohican-Lenape composer to create the indigenous-inspired works they would later perform. Chanticleer’s modus operandi was to collaborate directly with indigenous composers for their indigenous-inspired commissions.

My Kronos story is very similar. David Harrington’s mother, Hazel, read a newspaper article that peripherally compared my music to her son’s ensemble. She clipped out the article and sent it to him. David visited me, and after several hours of talking over most of the explanations I’ve included above, he commissioned a new work from me that very afternoon. And over the years, I have composed three works for Kronos that intersect Native American aesthetics and Western music. Even more, I’m not the only indigenous collaborator with whom they’ve worked; Kronos has invited new commissions from celebrated Diné composer Raven Chacon and the distinguished Inuit throat singer herself, Tanya Tagaq. Kronos Quartet’s modus operandi was to collaborate directly with indigenous composers for their indigenous-inspired commissions.

We must engage in genuine relationships that do not diminish or erase cultural realities in favor of some questionable aesthetic of neutrality.

It is my firm belief that by championing a respectful cultural process as an artistic standard we not only achieve important cross-cultural understanding, but we form important intercultural relations with each other. With cultural respect comes a deeper historical context for approaching the quality of music. In order to approach composers and compositions, we must engage in genuine relationships that do not diminish or erase cultural realities in favor of some questionable aesthetic of neutrality. We must admit that quality is measured with cultural understanding, not through detached vocal craft or objectified technique. Music may be well crafted, but what is the music saying? Where are the relationships in the process? What communities are involved? What lives beyond the Western musical hegemony? Can we jettison the impossible acultural neutrality narrative in Western classical music to discover a mutually enriching exchange of culture?

Two Native American drummers rehearsing with the members of a symphony orchestra

Dakota drum group Maza Kute with Mankato Symphony Orchestra, rehearsing Davids’ “Black Hills Olowan,” 2010

Hannibal Lokumbe: Always Go With the Feeling

A BIPOC man with dreads, a dark shirt, and dark cap

For the past three years, composer/trumpeter/raconteur/poet/community activist/force of nature Hannibal Lokumbe has served as a composer-in-residence with the Philadelphia Orchestra under the auspices of Music Alive, a program which New Music USA administers in partnership with the League of American Orchestras. The culmination of this residency is Hannibal’s massive oratorio Healing Tones, which at the end of March received its world premiere performances featuring the Philadelphia Orchestra joined by two choruses and three additional vocal soloists.

Hannibal has had a long history with New Music USA and, before that, with Meet The Composer (which later merged with the American Music Center to become New Music USA). MTC supported the 1990 commission of African Portraits, Hannibal’s first large-scale work involving a symphony orchestra. African Portraits, a sprawling sonic adventure requiring blues and gospel vocal soloists, three choruses, a West African kora player, and a jazz quartet in addition to a large orchestra, has now received over 200 performances all over the country, a rare accomplishment for any contemporary American work let alone one that costs $4000 a minute to rehearse. So we have long wanted to have an opportunity to record a conversation with him about his musical career, his compositional process, and his sources of inspiration.

Our recent talk with Hannibal in Philadelphia was a 45-minute roller coaster ride that was part testimonial, part reminiscence, part philosophical manifesto, and part performance art, but all pure emotion. Many questions were left unanswered and others just led to other questions for us, some of which we probably will never be able to answer.

There was a lot to process in a very short amount of time. There were his extraordinary thoughts about Pangaea—“the spiritual land mass of humanity is music”—as well as his optimistic outlook on the future: “What our world and what our nation’s going through now is giving birth.  Birth requires some bleeding and some suffering.  But in the base of our brain is a certain knowledge, and that knowledge says that from this pain will come this treasure.” There were also tantalizing fragments of anecdotes from his storied life in music, such as taking Jimi Hendrix’s place after Hendrix died for a recording session with Gil Evans (“Gil … always saw things in a person that they might not see in themselves”) or giving advice to a young Whitney Houston (“Sister, whatever you do, follow the music.  Don’t follow the people. People will confuse you.”) Perhaps what was most poignant to me was a comment he made about why he creates such personal and idiosyncratic music:

“It would be a disgrace to my ancestors to try to tell someone else’s story, which I could not do.  I could emulate it. I could emulate Bach. I could emulate Brahms. I have the technical skill to do that, but it would be dishonest.”

Hannibal Lokumbe in conversation with Frank J. Oteri at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia
March 13, 2019—12:30 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan

Songs of Hope

A well-known Kiowa musician and historian, Joe Fish Dupont, works as the curator of the Kiowa Museum in Carnegie, Oklahoma. The mission of the museum is to “protect, preserve, and perpetuate the Kiowa way.” They provide programs focused on preserving Kiowa language, art, song, history, and traditions. One way that the Kiowa people have preserved their language is by using tribal songs to portray history and culture. Joe told me that Kiowa people are known as the “singing people” among other Native American tribes. Joe invited me, a music educator, to work with him on a project to preserve Kiowa children’s songs.

As a music professor at Cameron University in Lawton, Oklahoma, I had previously worked with Kiowa singer Cheevers Toppah on an arrangement of a Kiowa hymn. Toppah recommended me to Dupont as a music education resource. I was aware of the importance of being accepted by the tribal elders. The Kiowa are very protective of their language and songs. They want to preserve these cultural treasures and not allow them to be exploited or misinterpreted. A level of trust is needed, as they are allowing you as a collaborator or researcher to share in their sacred ritual of song. My role in this project would be to video-record, transcribe language, and transcribe the music in Western notation.

The Kiowa want to preserve their language and songs but they do not want them to be exploited or misinterpreted.

The purpose of the Rabbit Society (Poli’ee-gah) of the Kiowa was to teach the younger members of the tribe their ancestral roles and duties through the content of songs. The Rabbit Society began as a story handed down by the elders. Mr. Dupont explained that an old man within the tribe broke the laws of the Kiowa and was banned from the tribe. After suffering several days, unconscious from hunger and thirst, he woke up surrounded by a multitude of rabbits. The rabbits cared for the old man and fed him. They suggested that he return to the Kiowa and teach the children how to make bows, arrows, and to be great hunters. The tribal leaders were impressed and invited the old man to become the leader of the “Rabbit Society.” It was an honorable place in the warrior order and tribe. The members of the Rabbit Society were designated official helpers in preparing the ceremonial arbor for the sacred Sun Dance. The Rabbit Society made their own dance, called the Rabbit Dance. This dance is carried out with the dancers keeping their feet close together, portraying rabbit ears with their motions and hopping to the beat of the drum.

The Rabbit Society composed their own songs that described life lessons or chores or offered other instructions from the Rabbit Society members. The old man’s name was changed to Grandpa Rabbit. The Indian Agents of the U.S. Army had banned all society dances, including the Rabbit Dance, but with the revival of the Gourd Dance in 1957, the elders also revived the Rabbit Dance and songs. So while efforts had been made throughout the years to banish the Rabbit Society’s children’s songs, they had survived. Joe was on a mission to ensure that they were not lost again.

Joe Fish Dupont

Joe Fish Dupont

Joe met me at the Kiowa Museum and gave me a tour of its many artifacts, stopping to share pivotal stories that chronicled the history of the Kiowa people. He shared with me his role within the tribe, as the keeper of the songs. This is a distinguished title among the Kiowa, and Joe takes his responsibilities very seriously. There are several efforts within the tribe to preserve the native language, including language classes and public school Native American language initiatives. They have also just received a grant to support the preservation of the language.

However, Joe was troubled that although several attempts had been made to establish singing schools or workshops within his tribe for the younger members, he felt that more could be done to reach the students through technology or in a visual way. When the tribe was larger, the oral tradition was sufficient, as many members would share the songs with each other. As the population of the tribe has decreased and gatherings have sparser attendance, there is an increased need for the preservation of language and song.

Joe was especially concerned that in the event of his passing the songs may be lost. Another troubling thought was that with diminishing Kiowa members and fewer children showing an interest in learning the Kiowa music from the old oral tradition that there would possibly be some music that would be forgotten. I think the thing that really motivated this project was the hope that these songs, when learned by younger tribal members, would continue the traditions and knowledge of the Kiowa community.

We discussed some options and came up with the idea to preserve the Kiowa children’s songs, known as the “Rabbit Society Songs,” through video recordings. In addition, Joe requested that the Kiowa language be added to the video, so that students would be able to see the words as they were being sung and develop their Kiowa language skills. For one semester, we met regularly to preserve the Kiowa children’s songs on video with Joe singing in the Kiowa native tongue. His time and effort was an act of great love for the Kiowa people. Joe would speak the Kiowa song, sing the song, and then assist me as we subtitled the video. After a while, the timbre of his beautiful voice would be mesmerizing in the quiet museum. One could imagine the Kiowa mother or father, sitting with their children, singing these simple songs and wisely instructing them through music.

Through semi-structured interviews, written notes, video, and audio recordings overseen by an independent reviewer, the data from this research project was analyzed. There were nine songs that spoke of the special qualities of the animals, lessons children may learn from the animals, and particular jobs that they can take on as younger members of the tribe. The lyrics were thematically analyzed into three categories: 1.) responsibility, 2.) beauty and whimsy as a respect of nature, and 3.) life lessons. These beautiful songs are now preserved and available for the Kiowa Tribe to use in their singing schools for younger members, but they are currently not yet available for publication due to an ongoing pending children’s literature project.

I have had the privilege of further collaboration with the Kiowa tribe as Joe Fish Dupont graciously agreed to speak and share information about Kiowa music at one of our collegiate music education forums at Oklahoma Baptist University, where I am now teaching. As a music educator, I learned a great deal about the power of music as a tool to transform culture over an extended period of time.

“Music is not separated from culture: it is culture.”

Studying Native American music gives us a snapshot into the hearts and lives of the Kiowa people. The past informs our present and future. Ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl stated “Music is not separated from culture: it is culture” (2002). Within a community of people, folk or sacred music can be as much a defining part of who they are as their colorful headdresses or beaded regalia. It is internalized and solidifies the Native American journey, as well as informing the future of the tribe.

The official flag of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma

The official flag of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma