by Gregg McVicar,
Host and producer of UnderCurrents on Native Voice One
Rock and roll was born in the United States, and it makes sense that some of its forerunners would be the original Americans. The people are the land and the music comes from the land. Iconic artists like Charley Patton, Mildred Bailey, Jimi Hendrix, Robbie Robertson, and Redbone were among the first to express this Native perspective through popular music. We can connect the dots from Patton, the “Father of the Delta Blues,” on through a musical narrative that runs like a powerful river through today’s blues, rock and jazz music. The film RUMBLE helps us understand why, and to actually now hear these indigenous influences present themselves in rhythm, tonality, phrasing, and attitude.
This process has not stopped, just as Native cultures continue to thrive and evolve, adding new bits of influence into American culture. But what about the other direction? One often hears the question “why does today’s Native music sound so much like other styles?” The answer would have to be that today’s Native peoples are full participants in modern culture and engage in the same cultural give and take as everyone else.
In recent decades, these artists have melded their own traditions with au currant forms of expression to give us the Navajo (Diné) drum & bass sounds of Sihasin, the Inuit a cappella of Pamua, the country-rock storytelling of Arigon Starr, the Standing Rock-inspired folk of Raye Zaragoza and the topical lightning of Prolific the Rapper and A Tribe Called Red.
They have each chosen a way to express their “indigeneity,” purposefully trading bits of art and culture with others as Native peoples have always done throughout time.
This accounts for how Native values and instincts were present in the crucible of rock, and why so many other musical traditions are woven into Native works.
Mainly living and working outside of the mainstream music industry, Native musicians have joined (or created) small labels, touring below the radar to Indian events and world music festivals, some enjoying greater success in Europe than at home. You won’t find most of them on late night TV shows or commercial radio. But they are regulars on Native radio around the U.S. and occasionally on public radio. Today’s Native music remains somewhat underground, which makes the discovery process both challenging and deliciously rewarding.
In that spirit, we’ve created both this list and a Spotify playlist to introduce to you to some Native artists you should know about. Each in their own way carries forward deep traditional values, incorporated musical strands such as reggae, punk, funk, techno, and alternative.
In the Arctic Circle, the only indigenous instruments are the drum and the voice, used to accompany dance, often with masks. From this starting point, and inspired by the ethnic gumbo of The Meters, Pamyua (pron: BUM-you-wah) invented what they call “tribal funk,” a melding of traditional circumpolar chants of Inuit, Yupic and Greenlandic origin, in powerful four-part harmony, propelled by funky percussion, keyboards and occasionally, didgeridoo. Alaskans are very proud of Pamyua and they’re a big inspiration for Native youth.
You can hear the chill of Toronto winters in his every song, yet each burns with passion and intelligence. Much of it is driven by the Redbone-style “King Kong Beat” with mesmerizing vocals floating above double-time guitars. Marc Meriläinen records under his own name and as NADJIWAN. He also collaborates in the electronic side-project Quillbox, where he continually explores rock and electronic soundscapes while giving voice to his Ojibway and Finnish heritage.
On the reservation, Mexicans can be viewed as outsiders. And Native music circles have tended not to include them. But when thousands of 1st Nation peoples gathered in full regalia for concerts celebrating the grand opening of the NMAI (National Museum of the American Indian) in Washington, D.C., an artist not known to them, Lila Downs, took the stage and completely wowed the crowd. Her intricate interweaving of Latin, jazz, and indigenous Mexican grooves was instantly recognizable as American Indian, but with a Pan-American perspective.
Powerful, polished and deeply folkloric, Lila Downs bridges the same distance that her parents, a White Minnesota professor and a Mixtec singer from Oaxaca, crossed. Downs’ artistic stance and her music remind us that so many people from south of the border are Indians too, that we’re all cousins. Her song “La Linea” (“The Border”) challenges the imaginary line:
The sky is watching over you
Plain of fire
The earth which gave birth to you
Spirit of the earth
Spirit of the sea
Spirit of luck
Meant to wander
This Native woman has so much talent, she restlessly moves from one medium to the next. Through her own record label, Wacky Productions, Arigon Starr recorded four albums of her original songs. Her songcraft ranges from tender old-school country ballads (“Daddy’s Records”) to the punk of “Salmon Song” (“I will come back!). “Honor Me” takes a direct shot at team mascots while “California Indians” delivers a well-researched history lesson that takes us from The Senator Hotel to Alcatraz. She created radio a theater series, then a one-woman show in LA (The Red Road), and is now publishing her original comics, Super Indian. Starr is an enrolled member of the Kickapoo-Creek Nation Tribe of Oklahoma.
In all of her creative pursuits, she seems to most enjoy skewering tired stereotypical images of Indians.
Prolific The Rapper
A lot of early rap was born as a socio-political critique of a brutal system of oppression. Think NWA. Prolific The Rapper (a.k.a. Aaron Sean Turgeon) has grabbed the baton of resistance rap with the anthem “Black Snakes,” a full-throated takedown of the oil industry, specifically the Dakota Access Pipeline, site of massive protests at Standing Rock in the Dakotas. Backed by Canadian First Nation samplers A Tribe Called Red, Prolific comes through with a plainspoken message that is made even more powerful by his blistering videos — documenting ongoing assaults on the land and its people, truth-telling activities that could have sent him to jail for seven years had the charges not been dropped.
What is goin’ on, have we lost our minds?
Every human needs clean water to survive.
Long a traditional Navajo (Dine’) dance group led by their father Jones Banally, the kids were emotionally struck by lightning the first time they heard The Ramones. So as young teens in Northern Arizona, they formed a punk band, Blackfire. They burned hot with a message of resistance, touring the world many times, mainly playing small clubs and festivals. As they grew up and had their own kids, brother and sister Clayson and Jeneda Benally formed a new band, Sihasin (See-ha-sin), the Dine’ word ‘to think with hope and assurance.’ They continue to dance, record, make videos and tour the world with a message of hope for social and environmental justice. “Fight Like a Woman” comes from their most recent album, produced by Ed Stasium (Talking Heads, Ramones).
Keith Secola is Anishinabe (Ojibwa) from the Iron Range of Northern Minnesota, now living in Arizona. Through his own record label Akina, he has been prolific, recording six albums and winning seven Native American Music Awards. Secola is gifted with a naturally funny and magnetic personality, easily able to instigate big jams and sing-alongs whether they be at major stage productions or intimate benefit shows.
If there is a Native American national anthem, it’s “Indian Cars.” With wry Native humor, it celebrates a reservation one-eyed junker, its bumper held on by a sticker that says “Indian Power.” This fun remix brings Secola together with a host of rockers and rappers.
RUMBLE connected the dots from Southeast traditional tribal rhythm and vocals right on through the delta blues — which is where we find Cary Morin right at home. He’s a masterful finger picker and an earthy, soulful singer with an impressive collection of original and distinctive songs to his credit, a perfect road trip companion. A member of the Crow Nation, and collaborator with Tuscaroran artist Pura Fé on her extensive European tours, Morin was a founding member of The Atoll which specialized in electronic world beats, then went solo and now also collaborates with John Magnie and Steve Amedée (of the Subdudes) in the band Young Ancients.
Live Acoustic Set:
Author Sherman Alexie answers the question “How do you know you’re Indian?” with a very straightforward “When your tribe says you are.” Yet identity is still complicated for many Native peoples given sometimes difficult family backstories with adoptions and cross-cultural marriages. Native artists such as Buffy Sainte-Marie and Michael Franti were raised by White adoptive parents far from a day-to-day tribal experience. As was Nahko, whose roots are Apache, Puerto Rican, and Filipino.
From desperate beginnings (his mother was a prostitute) to his advantaged Portland upbringing with classical piano lessons, then travel and his discovery of guitar, folk, and songwriting, Nahko’s path has been one of deep self-discovery. His band, Nahko and Medicine for the People, has garnered a passionate following, with avid young fans memorizing his rapid-fire lyrics and turning out in force for live shows.
Adopted by a working single-mother in Fresno, CA, Deborah Iyall (Cowlitz) always had teenage babysitters who introduced her to The Rolling Stones and all the current music on AM radio. She was raised to be proud of her heritage, and at 14 she took part in the All Nations Occupation of Alcatraz (1969). Instead of going straight to college, Iyall purchased a VW camper van and joined the salmon protests on the Klamath River where Yurok people demanded return of their fishing rights. She wrote poetry and entered the San Francisco Art Institute where she joined forces with other students to form a band, Romeo Void, got a record deal and toured colleges all across the country. They even opened for U2.
To this day, “Never Say Never” and “A Girl in Trouble (Is a Temporary Thing)” are staples of modern rock radio.
In those days, Iyall’s distinctive talents and strong work ethic were thwarted by her not fitting in with the MTV “look” of the day. Lithe model-like waifs were in and sturdy dark-haired Indian women were not. But her power as a non-puritanical Native woman was fully felt and appreciated by her fans.
With her pride and Native identity completely intact, she has moved forward performing and recording with her own band (Debora Iyall Band) and developing her visual art. Iyall is an accomplished printmaker, and by day is a credentialed art teacher in Southern California.
Ronnie Spector was known as “The Bad Girl of Rock & Roll,” performed with all four of The Beatles, and was such a big star in Europe that The Rolling Stones once opened for her. Spector’s mother was African American/Cherokee and her father Irish American. Her singing career began with a family group, the Ronettes (“Walking in the Rain,” “Be My Baby”), leading to a tumultuous marriage to record producer Phil Spector, and most recently to a successful album of British ’60’s covers titled English Heart. Here she is doing the Ramones song “She Talks To Rainbows.”