Visual arts

Earth-shattering expectations for Indigenous music, loudly

Raven Chacon wasn’t sure if she would accept the commission that would soon win her the Pulitzer Prize for Music. A Milwaukee ensemble had asked Chacon — a Diné composer, improviser and visual artist born on the outskirts of the Navajo Nation — to write a piece for its annual Thanksgiving concert in 2021, scheduled for a 175-year-old cathedral in the center. -town. The offer smacks of cliche, another symbolic holiday act.

“My impulse is to turn down any Thanksgiving invitation, not because I’m anti-Thanksgiving but because it’s the only time we’re asked to do things,” Chacon, 44, said during a recent telephone interview.

But he slowly reconsidered, acknowledging that performing on Thanksgiving Day in a cathedral (with an enormous pipe organ, no less) offered a rare opportunity to address the Catholic Church’s violent role in the conquest of Native Americans. He wrote “Voiceless Mass” and, during the premiere, positioned violinists, flautists and percussionists around the seated audience, their parts scrolling through a hanging dog drone.

“If you hear there’s an indigenous composer, a lot of guesswork happens,” Chacon said, recounting the times even fans said they heard the desert in his music. “But I’m interested in what’s important to the community I represent: land, justice, injustice. It is meaningful for me to do hard work, not easy to digest.

When “Voiceless Mass” won the Pulitzer in May, Chacon became the first Native American to receive the award. The honor is part of a recent wave of representation and recognition for Native American artists in literature, cuisine and streaming TV that has grown since the galvanizing Dakota Access Pipeline protests began at Standing Rock in 2016. “The best of our artists are really well, and people are catching up,” said Paul Chaat Smith, curator at the National Museum of the American Indian, in an interview. “That means we’re not always starting from square one.”

But Chacon is also the first hard noise musician to win the Pulitzer, an unlikely ascension for someone who started making music about the Navajo Nation by turning snare drums into amplified feedback chambers before becoming a staple of experimental spaces in Los Angeles. Indeed, he is part of a loose confederation of native artists who are finding a wider audience by working on the fringes of modern music. The immersive sound art of Suzanne Kite, the self-taught instrumentation of Warren Realrider, the scabrous violin solos of Laura Ortman – these musicians and many of their peers are rapidly shaking up ideas of what it means to sound native.

Nathan Young, another prolific musician, was just a child in Tahlequah, Okla., the capital of the Cherokee Nation, when he realized the history of Native American music went deeper than the incantations of pow- wow. His father, a Delaware tribesman, traded rare all-night peyote ceremonial tapes from the Native American Church, cherishing the hypnotic melodies of singers like Joe Rush.

“I thought about the sounds our ancestors made that we could never imagine, how we could not consider what might be ‘native music,'” Young, 46, said from his home in Tulsa. asking what had been lost over centuries of genocide. .

In college, a VHS tape by Japanese electronic icon Merzbow expanded Young’s sense of what music could be, as did a later home recording that New Zealand Maori artists played while giving her a traditional Tamoko tattoo. “It was them rubbing rocks against rocks, doing this ‘primitive ambient music,'” Young said. “Hearing other indigenous people expressing these sounds made me realize that I was not the only one who thought so, interested in this noise.”

Back in Oklahoma, Young joined Postcommodity, an influential Native collective that included Chacon. Soon he was running the Peyote Tapes label and recording dozens of albums with the aggressive and distorted duo Ajilvsga.

While Young challenged the preconceived notion that all Native American music included the songs and drums of powwows, Joe Rainey leaned into typography. Raised near Little Earth, a Minneapolis housing complex that has been home to members of dozens of tribes for decades, Rainey began recording powwows at age 8. Using a portable GE cassette recorder, he racked up around 500 hours of performance.

For more than 20 years, Rainey, an HVAC installer and father of five, has also been a competitive powwow singer, sometimes vying for prizes of $10,000. Misconceptions that modern powwows are sacred spaces baffle the Ojibwa singer. “To you, maybe we’re talking about energies,” Rainey, 35, joked in an interview from his home in Oneida, Wis. “But we just show up to have fun and sing and dance.”

In the summer of 2020, Rainey had teamed up with veteran Minneapolis producer Andrew Broder for a year, trying but failing to find a proper modern context for his songs and samples. When Broder attended a powwow between buildings in Little Earth, he realized he had mishandled the material.

“The sound was no different from how a speeding car with a booming system fits into the landscape of a city,” Broder said over the phone. “These voices and the drum bouncing off the walls of the projects had a similar quality. That’s where I wanted to go, where the sound was smeared.

Broder and Rainey began operating around an axiom of “organized chaos”, using the abrasive productions of Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad and the narrative candor of Nas as twin lodestars. The resulting “Niineta” – which was released in May and titled Ojibwe for “just me” – pins layers of powwow songs to industrial-strength drums and blizzards of static, suggesting musical performance radicalism of what Rainey often called the “urban”. Indian.” Samples of Rainey’s incarcerated cousin and his deceased friends give him gravity as he noisily sorts through his grief.

“That album helped me make sure I was mentally okay,” Rainey said. “Keep going, that’s what this album made me do.”

A similar development also drives “Medicine Singers,” July’s self-titled debut album from a wild rock offshoot of the Eastern Medicine Singers, an Algonquin drumming group based in northern Rhode Island. The album is a collaboration with Yonatan Gat, an Israeli-born guitarist who first gained attention in the savage rock band Monotonix and has since launched a label to collaborate with mainstream musicians around the world. Gat met the Eastern Medicine Singers at South by Southwest in 2017, then formed ad hoc groups with artists like new age pioneer Laraaji and mighty drummer Thor Harris to improvise with them.

Medicine Singers founder Daryl Black Eagle Jamieson feared they would tweak these historic sounds until they broke. A 62-year-old Air Force veteran who didn’t learn the Massachusetts language until adulthood, Jamieson asked his mentor, Donald Three Bears Fisher, to approve the lyrics to “Daybreak,” the first single from the album and an ecstatic aubade with beating drums. “He said, ‘I want it played everywhere,'” Jamieson recalled in an interview. Fisher died in 2020. “So that’s what I do.”

Young has seen similar responses from elders in Oklahoma. “I come from an additive culture. Things fascinate us,” he said. “We are not trying to live in the past. We’re in this long conversation about how we can make these sounds work for what we want to express. »

However, taking into account a past of forced estrangement and assimilation remains an essential component of this music. Both Ortman and Kite started playing the violin after being adopted by white families. The instrument gave Ortman permission to be someone else and hope that she would be reunited with her family, as she did with the White Mountain Apache tribe in 2001.

“Meeting my mom and older sister was like seeing eye to eye as the world revolves around you,” Ortman, 49, said by phone. Many of his later records contemplated the life lost with his family; she often plays an Apache fiddle, made from an agave stem, which she received on this reunion trip.

“People You Must Look at Me”, one of Kite’s early performances, helped her come to terms with the loss of her mother, who died by suicide, and embrace her identity as an Indigenous artist whose ancestors fled Wounded Knee on foot . His work now incorporates half a dozen other disciplines, including artificial intelligence — all ways of learning from Native Americans’ past in order to reimagine their future.

“I’m not very interested in Western art music,” Kite admitted with a laugh. “There’s too much to learn from community members who don’t have a degree. I see this as the way to generate new things.