Red Nations Celebration – Santa Fe Music Hall (Santa Fe, NM) / Native Roots & Rhythms – Paolo Solari Amphitheater (Santa Fe, NM)
Although Santa Fe, N.M. is not renowned for having a thriving music scene, one weekend every August the town becomes the world capital of Native American music. In recent years, as an adjunct to the annual Indian Market (the biggest tourist draw of the year), there have been concerts featuring some of the biggest names in contemporary Indian music. These shows don’t draw a fraction of the numbers who crowd to the arts and crafts booths on and around the Plaza; still, for music lovers, the concerts, the free afternoon shows on the Plaza and occasional musical performances at art galleries make the weekend seem like a mini South by Southwest for Indian music.
The musical festivities commenced on Friday night with the Red Nations Celebration at the tiny Santa Fe Music Hall. The highlight was Russell Means, a prominent leader of the old American Indian Movement who recently has become an entertainer, calling his style “A-rap-ajo.” Means recites politically-edged poetry over blues-rock licks and was backed by Red Hawk, concert organizer Joanelle Nadine Romero’s band. His set was too short, but Means, looking like a vision with his long braids falling over a white suit, gave a stunning performance. His most impressive number was “Conspiracy To Be Free”, the true story of Means’ murder trial in South Dakota and his plan to shoot his way out of the courtroom if found guilty. Although it’s obvious that this outcome didn’t happen, Means is such a masterful storyteller that a nervous hush fell upon the audience as he led up to the reading of the not-guilty verdict.
The Native Roots & Rhythms show on Saturday boasted a larger roster and bigger names. It had three acts who were major contributors to Robbie Robertson’s Red Road Ensemble — Ulali, Kashtin and Walela (featuring Rita and Priscilla Coolidge) — as well as Apache medicine man A. Paul Ortega (who plays sweet country-like tunes in his native language), Navajo singer-songwriter Vincent Craig and others.
The main problem with this concert was a lengthy spectacle in the middle called “Tribes”, featuring a small army of singers, musicians, dancers and even a comedian. Although visually much of this performance was impressive, most of the music was synthesized schlock. It was almost like “Disneyland Salutes the Noble Red Man.”
Some of the few moments of relief during this production piece came from Ulali, a female trio from North Carolina who sang a couple of songs accompanied only by handheld drums. Ulali demonstrates at the most primal level the connection between gospel and Indian music. Ulali later returned for their own set, though by then the hour was late and the audience had thinned considerably.
The most poignant and emotional musical moment of the weekend was from Vincent Craig on the Plaza Saturday afternoon. When introducing his song “A Viet Nam Tribute”, he started talking about his brother, who fought in that war. His voice became so shaky, and he was fighting back tears so hard, it seemed for a moment he would not be able to sing it. But he did, and quite powerfully.