You know, what I really don't like is music I'm supposed to approve of or like because of who it's done by. I'm supposed to ignore the quality or lack there of and say wow isn't that great because of… Well I've never been one for that when it comes to the arts. You either have talent and know what you're doing or you don't and there isn't anything else that needs to be factored in.
It's not like affirmative action in the job market where inherent skills and talents are overlooked due to race or whatever, because in the arts that's all you're going to be judged on no matter what or who you are. I like the poetry of Ezra Pound for goodness sake and the guy was an unrepentant fascist, but that didn't prevent his work from being glorious. I like to think most people have enough of a brain they can separate a person from what they do artistically and judge each aspect of them independent of the other.
A case of this not occurring is the Canadian Inuit singer Susan Aglukark. Ms. Aglukark came on the music scene in the early 1990's when the height of the Native craze was in full bloom. You couldn't walk into a new age bookstore without smelling some sort of weird smudge mix being burnt, or hearing some ersatz drum and flute music being pumped over the sound system. The shelves were bursting with titles like Find Your Spirit Animal, or Ten Easy Steps To Walk In Balance written by authors with such authentic Indian names as Brooke Buffalo Eagle Wing, with beautifully coiffed blond curls and blue eyes that exactly matched their genuine Navajo Jewelry.
At the same time the musical group Kashtin, a pair of Innu natives from Labrador, were having some success playing native influenced folk/rock music with lyrics in their native language and French. There was a distinct tribal feel to their music, both in the rawness and the rhythms that were fresh and distinctive. It was something new and refreshing.
Buffy Sainte-Marie had put out her first album in years and was preaching about a new renaissance of Native power and creativity, and across North America there was a genuine upsurge amongst the latest generation of Natives in pride of people and self-determination. There was a feeling that no more would they allow the governments to push without pushing back, and it was played out in confrontations across Canada throughout the early nineties, and indeed continues today.
Any and all new voices were welcomed and cherished somewhat indiscriminately and without any real critical evaluation. As long as the person performing was Native and threw in stuff about the Mother and Eagles and soaring spirits it was going to be accepted, at least by the mainstream white audiences. You've never seen such an overuse of the word authentic in your life.
Even Native audiences were being somewhat indiscriminate which perhaps explains how Susan Aglukark received so much attention so quickly. Aside from the fact that she is a physically striking woman, fits all the stereotypes of the dark skinned Native beauty, she also sang in her native Inuit. That put the seal of approval on her right from the start.
That her first "hit" happened to be a Christian gospel song seems to have escaped quite a few people; "Amazing Grace" is "Amazing Grace" no matter if it's sung in the language of Iqualik or North Carolina. She was no more singing Native American music then Debbie Boone or Shania Twain. (There's a classic example of someone cashing in on the Native boom of the early nineties. Shania did nothing to deny the story that she was half Native – until it was discovered that the parent's heritage being claimed was her step father's and not a blood relative.)
I hadn't heard any of Ms. Aglukark's music in over a decade, so I decided when the opportunity presented itself, to see what she was doing now. I should have known from the packaging that if anything she'd been made even slicker. On the cover of Blood Red Earth (good Native sounding title) is a picture of her upper body in a skin tight, low- cut body suit wearing a Sioux woman's chocker/necklace. So that covers both angles – skin and Native authenticity.
If I'm sounding a little cynical about the cover it's because combined with the contents of the disc. This CD feels like she's exploiting her own heritage for the purpose of making a quick buck. She has all the right titles for the songs, "Blood Red Earth", "Circle Of The Old", and even the obligatory title in Inuit "Illanit". But the problem is the music is, simply put, top forty boredom.
It sounds like it came out of the factory that produces every other female singer on the market. There's the song with the strong guitar lead, the one with the swelling strings, the one with the children's choir, and even the introspective song. Aside from the fact that she throws in the occasional chorus in her native tongue there is nothing to distinguish this from the work of Celine Dion or any other number of bland divas out there.
Even more disappointing is her efforts to manipulate the feelings and emotions of the listener. You can see them in the control booth saying things like, "Okay boost the strings on that phrase to stress how emotional she's being". She also seems to feel the need to redo "Amazing Grace" again, but she's renamed it "As Only A Heart Would Dare". This is also the song with the lushest arrangements; children's choir and orchestration and there's enough saccharine in it that it would make Donnie and Marie Osmond blush.
If I sound like I'm being unreasonably harsh it's only because there are so many Native performers out there who do actually incorporate their heritage into their work, or don't even bother because that's not what their interested in doing. I've more respect for Paul Brandt the country musician, because he doesn't exploit his heritage to sell his records. He's just a country singer who happens to be a native and he doesn't make a big deal of it.
Susan Aglukark's music has nothing to do with being native and while her lyrics mention some of the right words it's done in a manner that belies what they mean. They're not about telling the story of her people, or the story of the land; they're for providing good hooks for the songs. Blood Red Earth is top forty dross wearing the guise of Native spirituality. It no more belongs with the work of Buffy Sainte-Marie or Kashtin then Brittany Spears.