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New Movements : Digital Tribe
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Electronica finds roots in Native music
by Brian Wright-McLeod
Music plays a major role in Native cultures. Native music is formed from the surrounding environment, dreams, or any other source that is intrinsically connected to the world of the Native performer. These days, that surrounding environment includes the technologies that pervade contemporary society. New, technologically influenced forms of native music are emerging, including Native electronic music. At the same time, non-Native electronic musicians are drawing inspiration from Native culture, and at times incorporating Native music in their works. As both evolve, the relationships between Native and electronic music are becoming deeper and more complex.
Both Native and electronic music share a common mathematical makeup. The beat, fundamental in the summoning of spiritual energies in Native music, remains central to the structure of electronic music. Its function has shifted somewhat: in electronic music, the beat plays a role in elaborating the music's spatial concepts. But it remains a key musical building block.
The work of ethnomusicologists in the early twentieth century fostered an interest in what has become known as "world" or "ethnic" music. These musics inspired modern composers to make a variety of experimental excursions in rhythm, form, texture, and phrasing within their compositional approach. For example, the microtonal nature of some indigenous music, such as the songs of Iroquois singing societies, may have influenced modern classical and electronic composers, who frequently use half-tones and quarter notes. Perhaps, as with modern art, electronic music was forged from indigenous precursors.
The philosophy, worldview, and spirituality of certain Native groups have served as starting points for many composers. Philip Glass was inspired by a Hopi worldview and Hopi prophecies when he composed the score for the Godfrey Reggio film Koyaanisqatsi (Life Out of Balance) released in 1983. Artists within the European electronic music movement, such as Beaver and Kraus, have used Native spoken word samples to create entire moods related to human connection with the Earth. Other artists have lifted samples of flute music, melody lines, chanting, and drumming from traditional songs and incorporated them into their own work. For example, in 1991 German-based DJ Dag and Jam-el-mar produced the EP single Peyote, which featured a track of traditional Native flute music (licensed from R. Carlos Nakai) banked on all sides with electronica and re-released as a dance single entitled Shaman's Call. In 1992, the duo released another project in a similar vein: Dance 2 Trance: Moon Spirits, which used nuances and samples from indigenous sources to create particular moods and soundscapes.
Exquisite Corpse, a collective based in Holland, released a twelve inch vinyl EP in 1992 containing the track "Honeymoon (Reassembling Reality)" penned by John G. Neihardt. This track was created around the text of Black Elk Speaks. As well as being directly sourced from a Native text, the framework of the music was permeated with Native influences evident in the piece's tempos, rhythms, and percussive subtleties.
In the world of club and DJ turntable electronic music, where the beat matters most, mixes are derived from a variety of vinyl sources and an array of computer programs. Quite often the club or dance floor is a place where styles and genres converge in an effervescence of creative exploration. Samples of "world" or "tribal" music and beats have enjoyed a long relationship in this area, but more and more elements of North American Native style continue to emerge. The school of DJ turntable music-mix sampling proves that there are no boundaries of collaboration, as all music converges to define sound itself as its common origin.
The Sacred Spirit project released in Canada on Sony in 1994 was the creation of an anonymous producer self-identified only as "The Brave". He used archival recordings of traditional songs put to dance music. His second attempt included contemporary Native singers hired for the project, but the project created only confusion in the Native community concerning the producer's sincerity in using Native culture.
Yet there have been successful collaborations that found their beginning by connecting the Native and electronic music worlds together through common respect and understanding. One example is Lunar Drive, an Arizona-based collaboration of electronic artists from various Native and non-Native communities. The music was electronic-based with traditional music designed specifically for the project - a combination which resulted in a living entity of creative force rather than a stilted array of dance beats peppered with samples lifted from museum archives.
Another successful, commercial excursion into Native electronic music involved
electronic artist Howie B, who collaborated with Robbie Robertson's project
Contact From the Underworld of Redboy (1998). "I found this kid
who actually designs these brilliant sounds with technology such as sequencing
and programming," Robertson said. "And combining his technological know-how
to this very ancient philosophy and music of the Native Americans, really proved
to a be powerful thing."1 Robertson's previous Red Road Ensemble
project, released in 1994, employed the talents of electronic/world music producers
and Native singers to create a variety of tracks that explored the developing
merger between Native cultural viewpoints and electronic music. The acappella
trio Ulali - not solely traditional but rather "traditional with soul" - appeared
on several of Robertson's remixes of their song, "Mahk Jchi (Heartbeat
Drum Song)". Each remix was based on an entirely different mood and
tone, dependent on the amount of enhancement used on the original vocal track.
DJs and various collectives such as Redplanet 7, Underground Resistance, and DJ Rolando (the Aztec Mystic) are part of an entire movement of Native artists inventing and building their own equipment. Sometimes, the references to Native themes and Native musical heritage are obvious. At other times, allusions to Native culture are more discreet. For example, occasional releases circulate which contain depictions of Native culture employed in very subtle ways using traditional symbols - such as labels of vinyl records inscribed with Kokopelli (a figure bent downward playing a flute, depicted in traditional rock drawings from the Southwest United States). These particular releases are anonymous: They contain no names, no type or words of any kind, just one small image on a white label. The intention is as obscure as the artists themselves.
Aztec artwork, symbols, and patterns always played a major role in visually
identifying Chicano artists in the music scene of the 1960s and 1970s. More
recently, Chicano artists have begun incorporating Native musical influences
into their work. The 1998 album namaste by Chicano artist Om contained
several exciting rhythms and percussions that included hints of traditional
Native percussion within the dominant patterns.
The presence of electronica in the hands of Native artists has been ongoing since the technology was first made available. The pioneers of electronic music include Buffy Sainte-Marie, a Cree folk singer from Saskatchewan. Her 1967 Vanguard album, Fire, Fleet and Candlelight, was the first quadraphonic electronic vocal album. Her 1969 album Illuminations was one of the first projects to use synthesizers. She also helped explore multi-tracking with her mouthbow solos for the 1969 Nicholas Roeg film, Performance. As technology offered new possibilities, Sainte-Marie even created her 1992 album Coincidence and Likely Stories on a Macintosh computer.
Contemporary electronic composers from the Native community are few, but Jackson 2 Bears, a Mohawk from the Six Nations reserve near Brantford, Ontario, and Russell Wallace, a Stl'atl'imx from British Columbia, are two musicians who have created very different styles by using different technologies and approaches to integrating traditional roots with modern forms. 2 Bears utilizes computer technology, loops, DJs, and pow wow singers, while Wallace derives a more direct involvement by composing on keyboards, and by utilizing all of the available technology with singers and traditional songs from his family.
Wallace sees the connection between modern music and the roots of Native influence.
"Electronic music owes a lot to aboriginal music, just as modern art has taken
from African art," he explains. "Minimalism and electronic music have drawn
from the structure of repetition [which is] utilized by modern composers such
as John Cage, Steve Reich, or Philip Glass. Today, we have techno music or trance,
which is based on repetition and heavy beats. How can we talk about 'American'
music or art and not recognize the contributions of indigenous cultures?"2
In 2001 the Alberta-based pow wow group Nakoda Lodge released Dark Realm, an album of pow wow songs that were electronically enhanced or embellished with nuances and effects throughout the recording. The reaction from the Native community was mixed. Meanwhile, Internet access has brought the world closer together, and its influence in the Arctic region is no exception. The five Inuit musicians of Greenland's Nuuk Posse offer an exhilirating example of how the fusion of traditional culture and modern music can open up new creative territories. Nuuk Posse's work is deeply influenced by Inuit cultural values and a worldview based on geographic place. The group combines traditional Inuit throat singing with beat-boxing and electronic enhancement of vocal tracks to produce a unique musical merger of hip hop styles and indigenous roots.
The prevailing influences of Native music and culture on electronica have given
new texture and vitality to electronic music. The music of the indigenous has
generated numerous non-Native imitators who produce a fusion that circles back
to music's original roots. Such a distinct relationship points to a natural
relationship between musical worlds that stem from a single source and yet express
themselves in a boundless diversity.
Brian Wright-McLeod (Dakota-Anishnabe) is a Toronto-based
writer and radio programmer (Renegade Radio on Toronto's CKLN 88.1
FM; see: www.ckln.fm).
With a specific focus on Native music, his column appears bi-monthly in News
From Indian Country. He is also a contributor to Native Peoples
Magazine, the Smithsonian's Native American Magazine, and
Spirit magazine. His first book, The Encyclopedia of Native
Music, will be published by the University of Arizona Press in 2005.
He is past Chair of the Best Music of Aboriginal Canada Juno Awards category
for CARAS, and a past board member for the Native American Journalists Association.
1. Robbie Robertson, from a radio interview with Brian Wright-Mcleod, as aired on Renegade Radio, CKLN 88.1 FM in Toronto, Canada.
2. Russell Wallace, from a radio interview with Brian Wright-Mcleod, as aired on Renegade Radio, CKLN 88.1 FM in Toronto, Canada.