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Contemporary Native American Music

Find out some of the many ways in which Native American influence is heard in popular genres of modern music.


Musical taste and style are as diverse among Native Americans as among the remainder of American society. In addition to preserving music from past generations, contemporary Native musicians such as the Porcupine Singers (Lakota) produce new songs in these traditional styles. New Age, jazz, country, and rock groups have been formed by musicians from all tribal backgrounds. Native composers and performers are also active in producing symphonic works, including ballets, chamber works, symphonies, and operas.

Although the styles and forms have changed, contemporary Native American music in many cases continues to serve the same social and ceremonial functions as in the past. No matter how removed this music has become from traditional styles, contemporary music deals with important social issues, provides entertainment, honors the "Indian way" (traditional lifestyles and beliefs), and incorporates elements of traditional music, including the use of vocables, Native instruments, and Native languages.

Native musicians using popular genres have created syncretic styles that incorporate elements of Native American music and Western popular sounds. For example, instruments may include Native drums, rattles, and flutes in addition to the drum sets, guitars, pianos, and synthesizers of contemporary popular styles. Waila music (popularly known as "chicken scratch"), performed throughout southern Arizona by Tohono O'oodham, Pima, and Maricopa musicians, resembles a hybrid of Native American, Hispanic, and polka band music of the Midwest. Lyrics may be in a Native language, in English, or any combination of English, a tribal language, and vocables. Tom Bee's "Nothing Could Be Finer Than a Forty-Niner" includes Native instruments, descriptions of popular Native dance styles, quotations from a traditional social dance song ("One-Eyed Ford"), and the vocables "be bop a lu la" from Gene Vincent's early 1960's rock tune. Sharon Burch creates haunting folk-rock style melodies with Navajo lyrics and themes concerning tribal issues and traditional ceremonies.

Some prominent Native American performers in these syncretic styles include Buddy Red Bow (country), Keith Secola (country), Tom Bee and XIT (rock), Red Thunder (rock), Jackalope (jazz-fusion, termed "synthacousticpunkarachinavajazz" by members of the group), A. Paul Ortega (country blues), and Joanne Shenandoah (folk rock). R. Carlos Nakai performs not only with Jackalope but also with other artists, including William Eaton and Peter Kater in a series of New Age recordings. Nakai has also recorded a number of traditional Native American flute albums.

John Rainer, Jr., a member of the Taos tribe, bridges the gap between traditional Native American and symphonic works with his album Songs for the American Indian Flute, Volumes I and 2 (Red Willow Songs). Songs are presented in a strictly traditional style on one side of each album. On the other, contemporary accompaniments and orchestrations have been created for the songs through the use of synthesizer and studio orchestration techniques.

The collaborative efforts of R. Carlos Nakai and James DeMars have created a series of works featuring Native American flute and chamber orchestra. "Premonitions of Christopher Columbus," from Spirit Horses (Canyon Records CR 7014), uses Native American flute to represent the original settlers of the Western continents, the violoncello to represent European cultural influences, African percussion to represent African cultural influences, and the saxophone to represent the "new Americans" in a concerto grosso format. Mohican composer Brent Michael Davids composed "Mtukwekok Naxkomao" ("The Singing Woods") for the Kronos Quartet, incorporating an Apache violin, specially constructed instruments, and fragments of Native American melodies in what may well be the first string quartet composed by an indigenous composer. Louis Ballard (of the Cherokee-Quapaw) has composed many works in all symphonic genres. In addition, Ballard was the first Native American composer to conduct a major symphony orchestra.

Contemporary Native American musical life is extraordinarily diverse and encompasses every sound and style of music performed on the North American continent. Despite evolutions of style and use of contemporary sound and techniques, Native American musicians keep "one foot planted firmly in tradition," placing an indelibly Native American stamp upon these modern musics.

Excerpted from Multicultural Perspectives in Music Education.

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