For the past few years, the lovely folks at Canyon Records, one of the most respected record labels for Native American artists, have been sending me packages, and I’ve been remiss in not writing more about the music. Canyon releases records at a prodigious rate, and the Native artists on their roster are extremely active, so it’s unfortunate that so little is written about Native American music in the mainstream press. Not being much of an expert, I’ve held back writing about it myself, but I think it’s time to revisit that.
Native American music today is as current and multi-faceted as ever, from Northern Plains powwow songs and round dances, to the music of the Native American church or the Native flute music that’s long been loved in New Age circles, Native music deserves more attention outside of Canyon than it’s gotten in the past. Since much of the music is sung in indigenous languages, I get that there’s a bit of a barrier sometimes, but for every high-pitched, wailing powwow CD (powwow songs can be a bit of an acquired taste, though I’ve grown to love them), there’s an album of gorgeous round dance songs that mix vocables with English language vocals, or an album of newly composed and spiritually powerful Native flute that can transport you. Canyon specializes in traditional Native American music, in the sense that there aren’t many singer-songwriters, blues bands, hip-hop artists, or country singers signed to the label, though all of these genres have been embraced by Native artists. That said, none of the music being released now on Canyon is “re-creationist”; all of these albums come from living traditions where you’re as likely to find references to hip-hop design styles as easily as Spongebob Squarepants name-dropping or even moments of autotune among the traditional roots.
So take a moment to listen to some of the more recent albums released by Canyon Records, and get connected to some amazing music happening in North American Native communities.
Hands down, Randy Wood is my most favorite Native American artist. From the Cree nation in Alberta, Wood came out of the Cree’s rich powwow scene, a scene that turns out many great albums from powwow drum groups (drum groups are based on a group of singers gathered around a single large drum, all drumming together and singing). Randy’s known for his Round Dance songs, and if you’re looking for the most accessible way into powwow music (and Native American traditional music), the Round Dance songs are the key. Often sung in English as well as in Cree or vocables, round dance songs are based on the familiar melodic sounds of powwow singing, but are often softer and more intimate than the group intensity of a powwow drum. Randy is an exceptional artist, a singer who’s hugely respected on the powwow scene, but who also creates deeply sensitive and welcoming albums of songs that are somehow truly comforting. Each one of his albums for Canyon is excellent, with the newest album The Gift of Life, a fine introduction to his singing. As a whole, The Gift of Life is a great album, though it’s a bit mellower and introspective than my favorite album of Randy Wood’s: Our Love Will Never Die, from 2005. That album is the most magical of his, but The Gift of Life is surely a great buy as well. “Wounded Knee” is an especially powerful song on the new album; a tribute to the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre and the Wounded Knee takeover of 1973.
Randy Wood’s almost a singer-songwriter, though he works from deep in the Round Dance song tradition. With his blend of powwow rhythms, Native melodic lines, and songs that flip between English and vocables, he’s created a powerful form of Native singing that’s as accessible as it is compelling. He’s the number one artist I’d recommend you check out from this list.
Randall Paskemin is another much-respected Round Dance singer from Canada’s Plains Cree communities. Originally from Saskatchewan and now living in the US, Randall’s singing shows perhaps a more traditional view of Round Dance songs than Randy Wood. Wood’s songs are more softly arranged, often with just his voice and a drum, while on Paskemin’s new album, Emotions, he sings with friends, and his songs seem to echo powwow singing more than Wood’s, with the high-pitch stepped vocals. Of course, I’m no expert so I could be wrong, but these are the differences I readily hear. Paskemin uses more of the high falsetto vocables of powwow singing and the seconding vocal that follows the lead vocal but also deviates with ornaments and fresh ideas. To me, round dance singing was the gateway that got me really connected with powwow singing, since some of the harshness of powwow vocals was leavened by the slower round dance songs and by English lyrics.
Though round dance songs originated among Canada’s Plains Cree, they’ve gathered a lot of popularity abroad as well and have become a genre of powwow singing. They’re social songs, and the round dance itself can happen at powwows, or just at social gatherings. The resurgence of round dance songs in Canada is pretty impressive, with most of the powwow drums recording round dance songs on their albums and Canyon releasing a lot of albums entirely made up of round dances. Along with the round dances, there’s a real tradition of songwriting (all of the songs on Paskemin’s new album are originals), with the songs alternating between vocables (or sometimes Cree verses) and English. Many of the songs are romantic in nature, and often charmingly so. Round Dance songs are totally accessible and wonderfully beautiful, so I’d recommend that if you’re interested in hearing what’s happening now in Native Americana, look to the round dance songs first. In fact, round dance songs were a big part of the Idle No More movement in Canada, with round dance flash mobs galvanizing some of the protests. Check out this article from CBC for more on that.
Of Coast Salish and Cree descent, Fawn Wood, like many of these artists, grew up singing at powwows (her father was a member of the great powwow drum group Northern Cree), but she also grew up singing the songs of the Coast Salish people in British Columbia. She displays this dual heritage on the two songs on her new album, “Plains vs. Coast”, contrasting the first song in Plains Cree with the second song which is inspired by the Salish Hand Game, a popular gambling game. What’s truly lovely about Fawn Wood’s album Iskwewak, though, is how she strides the line between the traditionally male-dominated world of powwow singing and round dance songs to compose songs that speak to a feminine perspective in the tradition. This perspective ranges from the bitingly funny “Mr. Wrong” (Every time I think I’ve found the one/Always is Mr. Wrong/Or Mr. Tells-A-Lie/Or Mr. Five-Kids-On-The-Side) to the poignant ode to her child “Mommy’s Little Guy”. The song “No More” is inspired by female icons in country music like Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn. I love the idea that the kind of no-nonsense feminism of early country icons can spread to the world of round dance songs. Fawn Wood’s album is delightful and intriguing, both at the same time, and a favorite of mine.
Dancerz Groove from Northern Cree, one of the very best powwow groups, presents the Cree round dance tradition in the powwow context. It’s a vibrantly alive album and a blast to listen to. The songs, like many round dance songs, are romantic and light-hearted, with my favorite track, “Facebook Drama,” showing both how round dance songs can incorporate a lot of modern elements into the tradition.
Composed by Shane Dion of Northern Cree and his wife Twila, here’s the English translation to “Facebook Drama”:
“I read your status last night,
You posted that someone else was
holding you tight.
You shared it for all our
friends to see.
I don’t wanna go through this
So I pressed delete.”
Northern Cree are easily my favorite powwow group, and the sheer energy and joy in their singing really brings across the spirit of the music in an accessible way. On Dancerz Groove, the songs pulse with the powwow rhythms and have the same soaring high falsetto vocals as other powwow groups, but the energy of Northern Cree is so vibrant, that you’ll find yourself being transported.
Young Spirit. Akameyimoh Baby Boy.
2013. Canyon Records.
Young Spirit is a powwow drum group that just came over my desk, mostly made up of young Plains Cree singers from Alberta. Their album Akameyimoh Baby Boy was recorded live, as are many powwow albums, and it’s got all the intensity of youth. It’s traditional powwow music, but sung with a ferocity and abandon (and what seem like some really cool new musical ideas) that mark this group as young stars. It doesn’t make for casual listening, but you get a bit more of the idea of the energy of the powwow with this album.
R. Carlos Nakai & Will Clipman. Awakening the Fire.
2013. Canyon Records.
R. Carlos Nakai is the best-known Native American flutist in the world, and is largely responsible for spreading the tradition far beyond its origins. Until modern times, most Native American music was largely vocal, with only small pockets of instrumental traditions, like the whistles of the Northwest which weren't strictly musical (I've even seen bagpipe prototypes among Native American historical instruments), or the one-string Apache fiddle, spread throughout N. America. The flute was more widespread, though certainly not a dominant instrument. The Native American flute enjoyed a kind of revival in the late 20th century, based on the Plains style of flute playing, but as Nakai proved, the sound of the instrument was so evocative that it could as easily be used for improvising as playing traditional melodies. Embraced by the New Age movement, Native American flute and Nakai's albums sold huge numbers of units. Loyal to Canyon Records, Nakai's stayed with this label from the beginning, and his new album is also on Canyon.
Awakening the Fire is a duet album with Nakai improvising long, beautiful, drawn-out musical ideas on the flute alongside percussionist Will Clipman's many ethnic percussion instruments. It's a great album for listening and enjoying the wooden timbre of the flute and also enjoying the push and pull between two master musicians exploring each other's craft.
Tony Duncan is from the next generation of Native flute players, having learned from recorded masters like R. Carlos Nakai or John Rainer, Jr, but he comes from traditional culture too, with his father Ken Duncan a noted Apache storyteller from Arizona. He plays the Apache cane flute, which has a somewhat lighter timbre than the wooden Native flute you usually hear from artists like Nakai (or find in musical instrument stores). On his new album, Native Son, Duncan plays mostly original pieces, all unaccompanied on just the flute. His playing is beautiful, and there’s a real sense of peace in this album, but I really loved his 2012 album, Earth Warrior, which had originals as well but also some of the classic tunes of the Native flute canon, like Zuni Sunrise, or Taos Round Dance. The album also features Navajo guitarist Darrin Yazzie and Hopi kachina carver and vocalist Ryon Polequeptewa. And the final track features a moving story told in Apache from Tony’s father Ken Duncan, Sr (translation available in the liner notes). Of special note, Tony is also a five-time world champion hoops dancer, and was picked a few years ago to join pop singer Nelly Furtado on tour. Earth Warrior is the most varied of Duncan’s two recent albums, and a great introduction to a slightly more traditional world of Native flute.
Tony Duncan featured in Nelly Furtado's video:
Chicken scratch, or waila music, is one of the lesser-known yet very interesting Native American musical traditions. Developed among the Tohono O’Odham people of Arizona, chicken scratch is much more instrumentally based than most Native music. The button accordion, saxophone, and bajo sexto feature as the main instruments, and the melodies are derived from Southwestern musical influences like New Mexican Hispanic music or old polkas. Southern Scratch is the best known waila band and a great bunch of folks. This is couples dance music, and based on old traditional couple dances like the polka, mazurka, schottische, etc. It’s a beautiful and fascinating Southwest tradition that deserves to be a lot better known. If you’re interested in hearing more, Canyon has an amazing album of the original Tohono O’odham dance music: Gu-Achi fiddling. With absolutely beautiful harmonies and really deft playing, this is some of the coolest N. American fiddle music around and absolutely worth a listen. I love this fiddling; it’s infectiously fun to listen to and to play. I don’t think there are any Tohono O’odham still playing these fiddle tunes on the fiddle, though I have plenty of non-Native friends who play this music and support the culture, like Ken and Jeannie Keppeler of New Mexico's Bayou Seco.
I love Cheevers Toppah’s singing, and he’s in a fair number of different ensembles. His work with fellow singers Nitanis ‘Kit’ Landry and Alex E. Smith are some of my favorite recordings of Native American music, and a lot of that comes from Toppah’s ability to arrange Native songs into incredible harmonies. He learned this from spending his youth in choirs, and the music he makes now is influenced by all these harmonic arrangement ideas. On True Melodies, he shines a light on the powerful songs of the Native American church’s peyote ceremonies. For more information about the church and these ceremonies, please check out my interview with Cheevers Toppah at Tiny Mix Tapes:
I was already a huge fan of Nitanis ‘Kit’ Largo before her new album landed on my desk. Her trio with Cheevers Toppah and Alex E. Smith was pure magic. For her 2013 solo album, Largo (she was a Landry at the time of her work with Toppah and Smith) pulls out all the stops, inviting well-known friends like Randall Paskemin and Wayne Silas, Jr. “Please Don’t Go” is an album highlight, with her incredibly high vocals soaring over Paskemin’s singing, with lyrics by Paskemin inspired by the great Elvis classic “Can’t Help Falling In Love”. Largo comes from the powwow tradition as well, growing up around in the scene and singing in her teens with the much-respected drum group Bear Creek. She has this lovely note in her liner notes:
“One of my first memories of singing behind the drum was with my late Aunt Eleanor Elliott. I would have been about 7 years old, and we were at a traditional Pow-Wow. She took my hand and said, ‘C’mon let’s go sing,’ then took me to the drum. I would sing with her and it made me very proud.”
Serenity is a beautiful and very different solo album from this still-young singer. Like Toppah, Largo is a master vocal arranger, and the vocal harmonies on this album are intense and gorgeous. She uses harmonies and vocal techniques that I’ve never heard before and that are foreign to the Western singing tradition, but also blends this with Western vocal and choral techniques. It’s a uniquely inspiring sound and the album is absolutely a pleasure to listen to from start to finish.
NOTE: All of this music is available for purchase via Canyon Records.