by: The Aztlan Warrior
For years, Native American music has been relegated to the folk, world and New Age bins at record stores across the country. Native American music albums would often find themselves tossed in the international or world-beat files - a regrettable irony, since American Indian music is about as "American" as you can get.
But a Native American music revival has been taking shape over the past few years, and record stores - and the industry - are finally paying attention.
"People are just discovering what's out on their doorsteps right now," said Paul Pike, lead singer/songwriter for the Alaska-based inter-tribal band Medicine Dream. "I'm happy it is starting to get recognized. But I wish to heck it was happening a lot longer ago."
The recent announcement of a "best Native American music album" category at the 2001 Grammy Awards crystallizes the genre's arrival - it's coming into its own.
The Grammy didn't happen overnight: The New York-based Native American Music Association has been lobbying the Recording
Academy for a Native American category since the mid-1990s. And Phoenix-based Canyon Records has been releasing high quality
American Indian albums for the past five decades.
But numbers have had a big influence. The number of Native albums released every year has almost tripled since 1994, said Ellen Bello, CEO and president of NAMA. Tower Records, HMV, Barnes & Nobles and Borders now have Native sections, and airplay has increased substantially.
"music by Natives for Natives isn't much older than rock 'n' roll itself"
A BRIEF HISTORY
The production of Native American music is by no means a recent phenomenon - tribes have been performing powwow, peyote and
ceremonial songs for hundreds of years. But recorded music by Natives for Natives (and a broader audience) isn't much older than rock 'n' roll itself.
In 1951, Ed Lee Natay recorded "Navajo Singer" on Canyon Records, a collection of Navajo, Hopi, Kiowa, Tewa, Zuni and Pueblo songs.
Navajo and Ute flutist R. Carlos Nakai recorded his first of many albums on Canyon Records in 1982. His 1989 album "Canyon Trilogy" is the first Native American gold record, with more than 500,000 copies sold.
Activist John Trudell (Santee Sioux) and singer/songwriter Bill Miller (Mohican) are often cited as the first artists to bring Native American music - mixed with rock, folk and country -- to a wider, non-Native audience. Trudell has had a long collaborative relationship with Jackson Browne, and Miller has toured with Pearl Jam and Tori Amos.
But it was Robbie Robertson (Mohawk), legendary guitarist for The Band, who really broke down mainstream doors with his remarkable 1994 album, "Music for the Native Americans," a soundtrack for a documentary series on the Turner network. Robertson brought together a host of Native artists - including Ulali, Coolidge, Kashtin, the Silvercloud Singers and Jim Wilson - under Capitol Records' expansive tent. The album combines traditional chants and instruments with rock and electronic effects.
"No one knew about his Indian heritage until that recording," Bello said. "He was pivotal in launching the movement. While a lot of artists were doing the same kind of work at the same time, Robertson had more mainstream success."
Robertson pushed the genre even further with 1998's "Contact from the Underworld of Redboy," a fantastic mix of rock, Native sounds, hip hop and electronics. While under-appreciated in terms of sales, "Contact" did earn Robertson a Grammy nomination - in the world music category.
Of course, dozens of Native artists have been recording and performing even before Robertson's well-received releases. Joanne
Shenandoah (Iroquois), Sharon Burch (Navajo), Robert Miribal (Taos Pueblo), Robert Tree Cody (Maricopa-Dakota) and Litefoot
(Cherokee) have been touring and releasing albums for years.
"One of Native America's more successful artists today is a rapper..."
A NEW GENERATION
The most recent development in Native American music is an embrace of contemporary European and American styles, such as rock, jazz, blues, techno, even rap.
Trudell mixes blues and Lou Reed-esque narratives with traditional Native vocals on his latest, "Blue Indians." Clan/destine combines rock, acoustic, reggae and Native instruments on its first, self-titled release and its most recent "Deeply Rooted." Medicine Dream weaves rock and folk with traditional powwow singing on "Mawio'mi." And Lunar Drive mixes drum and bass, trance and dance beats with Native chants on "Here at Black Mesa, Arizona."
One of Native America's more successful artists today is a rapper, Litefoot. His is a distinctly urban approach, with raps about money, fame, cruisin', and surviving in today's crazy world.
In addition to rapping, the star of the movie "The Indian in the Cupboard" makes appearances on and off the reservation, talking to youths about cultural pride and avoiding drugs and alcohol.
"As for the future, most Native artists are quite optimistic. "
CONTEMPORARY VS. TRADITIONAL
All this mixing up of genres has left some traditionalists shaking their heads. Some Native music is considered sacred, and sampling a special chant, combining it with electronic sounds or even playing it on the radio is forbidden.
"It's like playing with dynamite," one Native artist told Bello. "You have to be real careful."
So far most Native musicians have been. "There is a cause for concern from the traditional perspective," Bello said, "but (artists) know that if traditional elements need to remain private, they will be."
As for the future, most Native artists are quite optimistic. NAMA is hosting its third annual Native American Music Awards on Nov. 11 in Albuquerque, N.M., and hundreds of musicians, fans and industry professionals are expected to attend.
"It's always got room to grow," Medicine Dream's Pike said. "There are so many good artists coming up now. It's like a wheel picking up speed. It's going to go a lot farther, and there's more and more coming."
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