By Neal Ullestad
"Diverse" isn't the first word most people would use to describe the music of the Native American Indians of the Southwestern United States. But, in fact, diversity is the most appropriate category to begin to describe contemporary Native American music in Arizona, California and New Mexico.
From the reggae rock of the Wailing Coyotes up in Tuba City, Arizona, to the traditional Tohono O'Odham sounds of the Redhouse Dancers in out at Sells, and to the militant rap of WithOut Reservation based in Oakland, California, and all points in between, the many distinct and multi- faceted genres, styles and techniques produced are wide ranging.
And though "honor diversity" is a politically correct phrase that expresses a reasonable sentiment, it is not one that is easily interpreted and applied. Individual beliefs and creative acts produce a constant conflict between preserving one's distinct cultural heritage and conforming to the predominant culture. Depending on the extent and nature to which compromise is demanded by the norm, a single artist can combine diverse conflicting ideas in one personality, often to dramatic effect. The struggle of tradition against innovation that is the creative process is nowhere more vividly expressed than in the many musical pursuits and associations within the communities of the indigenous people of the Southwest.
The fact is that Native Americans cannot be stereotyped in their musical preferences any more than anyone else, especially when we see suburban Anglo boys and girls who are "down" with "gangsta" rap, or Blacks who pursue everything from Mozart to New Age jazz.
Native American music is diverse on many levels- form, content, musical genre, and political orientation, to name a few. Some trends of their music favor traditional chants and sounds, while others wholeheartedly embrace modern sounds of rock, jazz and country music. Divergence among each of these is every bit as extreme as it is in the dominant commodity culture.
One musical trend among Native Americans, from Carlos Nakai's original experiments with Native flutes to the "modern" explorations of Jackalope- fuses traditional flute and drums with a New Age jazz sensibility. Others take this trend into the realm of light rock. Another trend finds its inspiration in Country & Western music. Jamaican Reggae is the favorite of still others, especially up on Second Mesa on the Hopi Reservation. Chicken Scratch polkas predominate on many reservations throughout the Southwest, while the traditional drums and chants of the Powwow and Potlatch are sometimes drowned out now by the Muzak in new Casinos.
The various tendencies and trends are not always compatible; just as the segments of the communities are not always in agreement. In a pluralist culture, different interests, allegiences and desires take individuals and groups in many directions; and, a general cooperative spirit in the search for meaning and survival is not spontaneous. Further, not all ideals can be made explicit; there are many forms of censhorship, not least being intimidation and lack of economic reward. Lack of tolerance on the part of the dominant public culture can push beliefs under the surface, making them implicit and held in reserve, not necessarily abandoned. Similar to the divergent musical and lyrical sensibilities we've seen, political ideals range from economic conservativism to liberal and radical views.
There is no lack of explicit political and social commentary accompanying the music on several compact discs recently released by Native Americans. From 1994s Johnny Damas and Me by John Trudell, and produced by Jackson Browne, and WithOut Reservation's Are You Ready for WOR?; to the work of Robbie Bee and the Boyz from the Rez, and Russel Means' Electric Warrior, Native American traditions have been combined with pop rock music in may ways.
Two years ago Robbie Bee released Reservation of Education (Warrior/Soar 604, 1993) with the Boyz from the Rez on the same label as Russel Means' Electric Warrior (Warrior/Soar 603). Both of these CDs have been influenced by rap and hard rock, as well as techno, dance music and industrial grunge. Robbie Bee's disc is more light-hearted, with more rocking, even disco dance beats, especially in "Pow Wow Girls" and "Looney Rooney" which targets specific racist commentary from CBS television's "60 Minutes" Andy Rooney. Means work is more "serious" than Robbie Bee's, and is quite "preachy" at times, but there are many intriguing musical excursions. One theme that recurs in Native American music is the struggle to free Leonard Peltier who remains a political "prisoner of war" in Leavenworth, Kansas. They remind us of the very real similarities between Peltier's imprisonment and that of Nelson Mandela in South Africa; with the reservations no less desolate at times than the bantustans and homelands.
Trudell's Johnny Damas and Me CD (RYKODISC RCD10286) is fascinating in its fusion of traditional (values) and sounds and sensibilities, thoughtful poetry, and urgent rock & roll. The blend is not like anything you've heard, and may take some getting used to, but the effort is well worth it. Here we have genuinely innovative rock & roll, musically and lyrically.
Musically the Southern California sound of Jackson Browne, John Hiatt and Don Henley predominates; but the chiming 12 string guitars of the Byrds are also reprised. There are further influences of rap and harder rock as well. Lyrically, the sense of loss, of land and love, is poingant and passionate. Trudell has a genuine sensitivity and respect toward women, which he boldly proclaims more than once on this CD, especially in "Shadow Over Sisterland". Perhaps some of this sensitivity stems from the incredible loss he experienced when his wife and children were murdered in an arsonist's attack on their home several years ago.
"WithOut Reservation (WOR)" carves out a radical, urban approach to Native American issues that stands side by side with the best of conscious rappers such as Paris, Consolidated and Ice-T. And, unlike media-grabbing misogynists Too Short and 2 Live Crew, the rage these three young men articulate is directed at social structures that leave many Native Americans filled with self-hate and alcohol, as well as at racist cops and the trivialization of humanity embodied in sports team mascots such as the Redskins and Braves.
Christopher Columbus is rightfully singled out as a symbol for the dominator mentality that has led to the slaughter and enslavement of so many non-white people over the past "502 Years". Themes of survival and self-respect predominate on Are You Ready for WOR? (Canyon Records/CR7035).
The laid-back "Cali" style of hip-hop mixes easily with more traditional chanting and drumming on this disc. But, with the militant anger of these Paiute, Navajo and O'Odham mixed up front, and a deep "scarface" groove throbbing below the surface, the sound is not the frantic and boisterous one so common on the East Coast that can keep people from hearing the words. This band has something to say, and they want the world to hear it.
John Trudell's fusion of mature rock poetics with challenging musical arrangements, and WithOut Reservation's militant rap stance are only some of the developments at the intersection of Native American music and pop rock in the 90s. With Robbie Robertson of the Band now exploring his Mohawk roots on the soundtrack to TBS's mini-series "The Native Americans," who knows what exciting sounds the future will bring.
SOAR CORP/WARRIOR, P.O. Box 8606, Albuquerque, NM 87198, 505-268-6110.
CANYON RECORDS, 4143 North 16th Street, Phoenix, AZ 85016, 602-266-4659. Neal Ullestad works at Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona, and his articles have appeared in NEWSREAL and various other publications over the past fifteen years. His "Diverse Rock Rebellions Subvert Mass Media Hegemony" can be found in Reebee Garofalo's Rockin' the Boat: Mass Music & Mass Movements (Boston/SouthEnd Press/1992). Neal can be contacted at: 3256 East Linden Street, Tucson, Arizona 85716-3203.