Thursday, March 03, 2011

Native American Music Lives!!! (North of the 49th parallel, too)…

When you think of Native American music, you probably think of it most often as a genre, typically exemplified by the prominent roles of flute and drum, lilting windswept melodies over pulsing drum beats, words frequently limited to chanting and vocal percussion, a sound that has not only earned it a niche in New Age music circles, but spawned a host of imitators, also. South American folkloric groups long accustomed to playing similar instruments have even taken to copying their North American cousins outright in major European capitals, wearing buckskin and Lakota war bonnets while invoking the Mohicans and others by name in their effort to sell albums while busking. Hey, work’s work, I guess. Just don’t let Russell Means catch you.

But Native American music is more than a genre of course. Native American music is music made by Native Americans. In Arizona alone that can run the gamut from the classic flute style of Carlos Nakai to the politico-punk of Blackfire and a plethora of styles in between. I’m still not sure what genre Keith Secola and his Wild Band of Indians fit into. And that doesn’t even count such icons of pop/rock as Buffy Sainte-Marie, Robbie Robertson and Daniel Lanois, all from Canada.

Yes, Canada’s got a whole lotta’ music, too, not the least of which are such stars as Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, so embedded are they into the American music scene that that fact is often forgotten. And yes, they have Native Americans, in a proportion at least several times greater than that of the US (and that doesn’t include Inuits). And yes, they have their own version of the Grammy Awards, called the Juno Awards, held usually in March or April of every year since 1970. They even have a category for ‘Aboriginal Recording of the Year’, an honor accorded no other minority in Canada (except Francophones), not bad for an ethnicity that didn’t even get the right to vote until 1960.

This year they’ve done even better. This year there will be an exclusively First Nations showcase. Since the Juno Awards are an all-week affair, it can become more of a SXSW-style event (not to be confused with the NXNE in June), complete with showcases. The Native American showcase is sponsored by Manitoba Music and will feature five of Canada’s most up-and-coming native artists. Christa Couture is perhaps the most ‘Canadian-sounding’ of the lot- despite her Arapaho father- pure modern acoustic folk, slick and sweet, self-conscious and world-wise, complete with piano and strings. “All the while she was starting and stopping, box-car hopping, to no avail,” she sings on ‘Sad Story Over’, whether autobiographical or not, I couldn’t say. Leela Gilday works in the same folk genre, even though she comes from the far north in Yellowknife NWT, a Dene cousin of our own Southwest US Navajos (Dene:Dine, get it?). Her style is more world-weary then world-wise, though, as in the song ‘End of the Day’- “She gets up from the table, the coffee’s growing old, she thinks of how the years go by, it seems she’s growing old.” Canada has got some of the best folk music in the world, and if they’re reluctant to give that up, then I see no reason to. Their First Nations fit right in.

Canada is not known for its urban music; I wonder why? Maybe they’re just too happy and healthy up in the north country to get bogged down in the anger and hatred that defines much of urban music… and much of America. Maybe that’s what national health care will do for you. If that makes Canada old-fashioned, then so be it. There is some, though, funk and electronica, too, so Natives will have their own versions, and Cris Derksen is a good example of that. A half-Cree classically trained cellist, she gets down down and funky with some hard-edged electronica on ‘What Did You Do, Boy?’ Digging Roots is a bluesy group headed by the collaborative duo of ShoShona Kish and Raven Kanatakta, killer voice meets killer guitar chops sharing a bouquet of flowery lyrics to create a sound that reminds variously of Joplin or Stevie Ray, even got some native rap, too. Coming from Ojibway roots and composition styles, it sounded good enough to win them the Juno award for Aboriginal Album of the year last year for their collection entitled ‘We Are’. Listen with a friend.

But my personal favorite of the five groups showcased is a group called ‘Eagle & Hawk’. Likewise of Ojibway roots and Winnipeg-based, these guys maintain a healthy schizophrenia consisting of gold ol’ R&R and what I could only describe as maybe… Indian rock? This can run the gamut from the chants, strings, and ambient sounds of the ethereal ‘Water Sounds’ to the border-town honky-tonkin’ ‘Wild West Show’. Their self-reflection and mock-deprecation can even be so incisive as to be anthemic, as in “I See Red’- “I’m not embarrassed when I look into the mirror; is it fear and anxiety or just the cost of sobriety?” This is good stuff.

I haven’t been to the Juno Awards before, but I know Canada has THE best folk music festivals in the world out West, and some of the best pow-wows, too, I hear. And if there’s less urban and electronic music than down south here, that’s easily compensated with good solid songsmanship. Check ‘em out if you get the chance.

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