If one were to go by what was offered for sale in New Age stores or in some of the World sections of music stores, you'd think the only type of music Native North American's created was by serious looking men playing flutes or doe eyed women singing rhapsodies to Mother Earth. In some ways that's not so very far removed from the singular way in which Natives were represented in early Hollywood movies where they were depicted as terrible savages.
This new definition is as one-dimensional as the earlier, and in some ways just as demeaning in that it reduces a whole culture down to the simplistic ideal of the noble spiritual savage. Not only does the depiction miss the point of the role music plays in the Native community, but it also precludes it from ever being anything but an artifact. It would be like keeping the visual arts of Europeans stuck back in their earliest cave drawings and not recognizing any of the progressions since.
There's a new series of DVD's that has been released by Arbor Records of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada that has broken down the components of the Native gathering know as Pow Wow into eight one hour episodes. In Pow Wow Trail Episode 7: Pow Wow Rock contemporary Native North American music is examined in detail. From the traditional playing of the Drum for the dancers to the contemporary musicians who carry that spirit forward with modern instruments, all aspects of aboriginal music in Canada and the United States is examined.
It's Buffy Saint-Marie, probably one of the most well known Native musicians today, who explains the term Pow-Wow Rock. She says it doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the Pow-Wows per se. It's just that since the music is an extension of what happens during the gatherings, and that their music all originates from that base it makes sense to call their contribution to contemporary music by that name. It's also the name they choose for it, not what someone else wants to call it which is important.
Buffy is only one of a number of Native musicians whose opinions on the music are relayed through this disc. Although some of the interviews and performances have been picked up from other broadcasts and edited into this DVD, what each person has to say is so pertinent to the issue at hand you don't even notice until the credits what's been done. Also on hand are the three women from the a cappella group Ulali, Robbie Robertson, and Keith Secola of Keith Secola and Wild Band of Indians, a Native rock band that mixes traditional and contemporary instruments and music.
Until I'd watched Keith Secola I'd never realized how much in common the falsetto singing of the men sitting around the big drum have in common with the high pitched wailing so many hard rock singers do when they sing. Take Geddy Lee's voice from Rush and picture it chanting around the big drum at the Pow-Wow and you'll get it.
In rather sharp contrast to Keith and his rock and roll approach are the women of Ulali. While at first listen and glance they may appear to be completely traditional as they sit on stage playing hand drums and singing in their own languages their view of the music and their approach far exceeds the boundaries of North America.
A point they raise about music, as does almost everybody else interviewed, is it is universal. What people sometimes fail to realize is if any culture today were to delve back into their past far enough, they would find they were as tribal as Natives. The first instrument any of us ever hear is the heartbeat of our mother in the womb.
The tribal drum one hears at the Pow-wow recreates that sound and is referred to as the heartbeat of Mother Earth. It resonates with all of us because we have all heard it whether we remember or not. To the women of Ulali this is the most important part of their music. This is why they utilize the drum, the most common instrument in all cultures, to act as the common denominator allowing everybody access to their songs, not just natives.
While these modern singers still hold on fast to the idea that singing is the way to best communicate with their creator, because it allows them to open their bodies and spirits in a way that talking or writing just can't do, they also know that they speak for their communities. (Keith Secola says every song is a prayer as far as he's concerned.)
To that end people like Buffy Saint-Marie and Robbie Robertson have begun making political statements with their music. As Saint-Marie rightly pointed out she's been singing political music for years ("Universal Soldier", and "Now That The Buffalo Are Gone") but that she still finds them the hardest things to write. She doesn't just want to hector people, but wants to pack as much information into a song "as is in a four hundred page text book".
She also talks about how difficult it is to get record company executives to go along with putting out an album with songs full of chanting and tribal drumming as mainstream music. If you have heard either of the songs that excerpts are played of on this DVD, "Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee" or "Starwalker," the chills that go up your spine when her voice rises into the stratosphere will either make you think the executives are deaf, or were deathly afraid of getting in trouble for letting a "renegade" loose.
Sometimes the strongest statement you can make is a personal one. Standing up and being counted like Robbie Robertson did in the early nineties was as important to him as a person as it was to the community for him to self identify at last. I doubt if there were many people who knew he came from the Mohawk Six Nations Reserve near London, Ontario, Canada until he wrote the soundtrack for The Native Americans television series on Turner Broadcasting.
In an excerpt from an interview he had give elsewhere Robertson explained that for the longest time he had felt the need growing inside of him to let it out, but the opportunity just wasn't there. As soon as it did present itself, he grabbed it and has been running with it ever since.
He talked about the first music he ever heard being the sound of the Pow Wow drum and how it's always been inside of him. He didn't begin writing politically oriented music though until he talked to Leonard Peltier from his cell in Lewisburg prison. Peltier is the Native American in jail on trumped up charges for the shooting of an F.B.I. agent on the Pine Ridge Reservation in the 1970's. There had been a shoot out between members of the American Indian Movement (A.I.M.) and the F.B.I. in which two agents had been killed.
There was no way of proving who had shot the weapon that had killed the agents, or even to accurately pinpoint which gun had done the shooting. It didn't matter that the agents had been the aggressors in the assault and were supporting a brutal regime on the reserve that kept people in line by terror and there had been countless killings of Natives by the Chief and his cronies. An agent was killed and they wanted someone punished for it, and they didn't care who.
Since his conversation with Peltier, who obviously believes Leonard to be innocent of the charges against him, Robertson has utilized his music to support his cause. "Red Boy Underground" may not be only about Leonard and his situation, but he's part of that story.
According to what one learns from watching Pow Wow Trail Episode 7: Pow Wow Rock the contemporary Native musician hasn't strayed too far from the spirit of sitting around the big drum and singing songs that are prayers to creation, but have merely changed some of the means of accomplishing the same goals. As a learning experience about Native North American music both past and present this is a great disc.
The interviews with the individual performers are highly informative, personal, and revealing about the nature of the music and the reason why each of them feels compelled to do what they do. It's a bare bones disc. There are no special features, but than again there is no need for any. It does give previews of the previous six episodes and the eighth and final one, which simply whetted my appetite to watch the rest of them.
Each of the other discs deals with a particular aspect of the gatherings known as a Pow Wow and looks to be a wonderful learning tool for the uninitiated and a powerful affirmation for others who already have information. This disc doesn't cover all the components of modern Native music, except as asides – the thriving Hip Hop and Rap scenes for example are only mentioned in passing – but it would be expecting too much, especially since it wasn't their particular aim to talk about all aspects of the current music scene.
What they have succeeded in doing is pointing out how the contemporary performer retains his or her connection to the original intent behind creating and producing music. It's about pride in who you are and where you came from and the ability to carry that forward into what it is you are doing today with respect and honour. It's not about making a quick buck or converts. It's about celebrating.