A lot gets written about the early music of North America and its influences on today's music. We talk about old time holler songs the slaves would sing in the fields and the Scottish and Irish roots of the music sung by the white settlers in the Tennessee Valley and the Carolina hills.
But all of us seem to forget there was a third group of people living in the same area, who had been living there actually for quite some time before the white people and their black slaves showed up. That would be the Native Americans, First Nations, Aboriginals, or whatever label you feel like affixing to them.
In the Carolinas it was no exception and the original people were the Tuscarora. Now for most people who have even heard of the Tuscarora, it's only because they are known as the nation that was the sixth of the Six Nations to join the Iroquois Confederacy. The truth of the matter was they were on the run and looking to escape white encroachment on their lands when they joined up with the Iroquois.
But for the Tuscarora, who weren't able to make good on the escape up north to what's now New York state, they ended up sharing a lot of the same experiences as the black slaves, including being made into slaves right beside them. So there was a fair bit of co-mingling of music going on right from those earliest days of settlement. In fact, according to singer songwriter Pura Fe, the two people's shared so much in common that when the Tuscarora were free they became an integral stop on the Underground railroad helping slaves escape to Canada.
Pura Fe should know about things like this because she can trace back her maternal Tuscarora line far enough to know she's the fourth generation in a row of seven singing sisters. So the singing style and music she learned from her mother, goes back to the time of her great-grand mother, which even at a conservative estimate would be the late 1800s.
When you listen to her sing on her latest album, Follow Your Heart's Desire, on the Music Maker label, you can understand how she ties into their mission of supporting music that is in danger of being lost. You can hear elements of almost every kind of old time music wrapped up in her songs, but there's also an underpinning of something distinct.
I don't even mean the obvious inclusion of Tuscarora language lyrics, or even native instruments like turtle shell rattles or drums; unfortunately you can find those instruments a dime a dozen on new age CDs these days. (Although finding anyone speaking the Tuscorora language would be a lot more surprising as its one of the tongues that was almost successfully made extinct by North American government assimilation programs. You can probably count of your hands and feet the number of completely fluent native-born Tuscarora speakers left in the world, current generations are having to be re taught to speak it as a second language.) It's more like there is a certain quality to her singing or an undercurrent to her music that makes it distinct from anything else you've heard before.
What I noticed first was her voice, one moment it would sound just like any other woman singer's voice that played around in the higher registers, the next moment there would be an almost rumble or growl in the back of her throat as some passion began to overwhelm her.
It may not be a traditional Blues voice singing traditional Blues songs, but it’s a voice, and a song, born out of the same emotional base that inspired the men and women from that area to sing the blues and the stories of their lives and families. Pura Fe does much the same thing as those who came before her, singing about love and betrayal, about wanting the right person, and being with the wrong one.
But she also sings the stories of her people, and I don't mean the cute little folk tales you read in the anthropology books either, but of the heartbreak of being different and the hatred directed against them by those too scared to do anything but hate and envy. The song "Della Blackman Pick and Choose" is about her great aunt who was killed and raped by the Ku Klux Klan for daring to try and go see her family after marrying a white man.
Then there are the songs specifically about her nation, the Tuscarora, and how she first came back to the Carolinas, meeting her cousins for the first time in the song "Goin' Home". Like all good Blues songs these are full of pain, happiness and longing. But unlike so many songs the longing is for the land – to reconnect to where the spirit of her family resides.
On Follow Your Heart's Desire Pura Fe shows a remarkable talent for both songwriting and singing. For those of you who have never heard her before this is an ideal opportunity. Not only is she in fine voice on this disc, but she is joined by some really fine musicians who provide both Native and Carolina style backing for her.
For those of you who know her from Ulali, the acappella group she founded, you will recognize the versatility of her voice if not the musical styles she is exploring here. For those of you who have heard Pura Fe before Follow Your Heart's Desire will be an experience you'll not soon forget.