Native American music may be one of the most tragically unknown genres in American music today. Representing civilizations and cultures that date back thousands of years (some predating ancient Egypt), the music and folkways from these centuries have been passed on directly to today’s musicians. Despite the weight of this history, there’s still a huge divide between the music being made by Native artists and the level of interest within North American public and/or media.
Part of the issue here lies with Native communities who have been relentlessly exploited by non-Natives. These communities are understandably leery about letting outsiders record and profit from their art. The Makah Natives in Washington State, for example, have a radically advanced framework of intellectual copyright dating back millennia that keeps their music and dance from being recorded and disseminated. But most of this comes from racism and ignorance, keeping Native issues and cultures out of the mainstream. But, there’s a remarkable movement among Native artists to push ancient traditions forward, to make new words for a new era. Here are eight Native artists that you need to know about.
Perhaps one of the best known artists on this list, Tanya Tagaq is huge in her native Canada and recognized internationally, as well, having collaborated with artists like Björk and The Kronos Quartet. What’s remarkable is that she’s made her name performing Inuit vocal games known as “Inuit throat singing.” Originally, the strangely-otherworldly vocals of these games were improvised, usually among two women sitting face-to-face (faces almost touching), and were meant as a kind of game to make a sound so strange and ridiculous that it made the other person collapse in laughter. Throat singing is a cultural thread that ties the Inuit and Arctic people together from Canada’s Nunavut (where Tagaq comes from), across the top of the world to Greenland, even to Japan’s Ainu population. Tagaq deconstructs this vocal game, taking it to places never imagined and making it into a larger statement about modern Native art and Native rights. Her new album, Retribution, is slated for release this October and it focuses on the horrible abuses of First Nations women in Canada as well as on the destruction of the environment (the Inuit are at ground zero for climate change) and on the historical damage done to First Nations culture.
Also well known in Canada and gaining ground in the United States, this three-person Ottawa Cree collective rep Native hip-hop hard. And they’re not the only ones; hip-hop is huge in Native communities across North America. A Tribe Called Red is one of the most innovative groups, and recent work included Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) for some mainstream cred. They’ve also been pushing to the corners of Native culture in unexpected ways, like selling their original action figures inspired by Native wrestlers. The Tribe is also known for mixing in pow-wow singing with hard beats, and their new album Welcome to Halluci-Nation, which is due out this month, prominently features the Atikamekw drum group Black Bear Singers from Québec. The album also features Tanya Tagaq, who turns Inuit mouth music into a kind of beat-boxed sonic nirvana. A Tribe Called Red manage to make songs that hit hard politically and socially, but are still eminently danceable.
Alaska Tlingit artist Silver Jackson (Nicholas Galanin) is a bit of a renaissance man. In addition to his powerful work as a visual artist under his given name, he’s also a cutting-edge composer and sound artist and, until recently, headed up a pretty visionary community music festival called Homeskillet Fest that brought together indie rock and undergrounder hip-hop acts from the Pacific Northwest. Though Home Skillet Fest is no more, he’s turned the community into a record label producing super limited vinyl pressings. Some of this vinyl can be purchased with traditional Tlingit silver and copper bracelets that Galanin makes himself. It’s a beautiful fusion of art and music that’s the hallmark of his crew, the Black Constellation. A loose collective of groundbreaking artists of color, the Constellation blends futurist fashion and hard-hitting statements through art with hip-hop or electronic music to make something so special that galleries internationally are snapping up their work. (Galanin says he’s currently showing in 10 galleries around the world.) His art can be breathtaking and troubling at the same time; one piece was banned from the Bumbershoot Festival in Seattle (this piece depicted many Starbucks coffee cups falling to the ground and spilling blood; each cup had the name of one person of color killed by police written in Sharpie). For all this, his music as Silver Jackson is based on lush, soothing soundscapes and introspective vocals in a kind of mélange that brings to mind the luxurious forests of Sitka, Alaska, where he makes his home. This is an artist as easily at home rubbing shoulders with underground hip-hop heads and crafting digital music in powerhouse studios as he is carving a traditional Tlingit dugout canoe (the third new canoe to come out of his community in 150 years). Few artists today can fuse tradition and innovation as elegantly as Silver Jackson.
While this isn’t one artist specifically, acclaimed reissue record label Light in the Attic has recently turned its attention to the nearly lost folk, roots, and roots-rock music of Native American artists of the ‘60s and ‘70s. With this Native North America series, the label looks to little-known artists like Alaskan Yup’ik Eskimo singer John Angaiak, whose “I’ll Rock You to the Rhythm of the Ocean” is a sublime folk song calling out the natural environment he grew up with in the Arctic, or Algonquin/Mohawk songwriter Willy Mitchell who started writing songs and playing music after being shot in the head by a racist cop in Québec. Like most Light in the Attic reissues, the huge liner notes here abound with strange and compelling stories, like how Mitchell’s main recorded album was almost entirely bought up by a mysterious Japanese investor and is impossible to find now. The joy here too is that some of these artists are still around and performing. The compilers chased down as many artists as they could to get permissions and more information, and these stories are as compelling as the music itself. Subsequent releases in the series have focused on individual singers and songwriters, including reissues of their original albums. This has brought to life artists like Inuit songwriter Willie Thrasher, who grew up with the old ways of Inuit life but lives today as a street performer and musician on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. Supposedly, a second volume focusing on American Native artists is coming soon, since most of the artists in this volume are Canadian.
The most recognizable sound of Native American music, aside from the New Age-style Native flutes, is the sound of the pow-wow drums. Drum here means a band of singers and drummers, and you’ll see them at pow-wows, all gathered around a large drum with multiple singers with sticks beating a unison rhythm and eagle-high voices soaring over the top. Pow-wow drumming and singing has spread all through Native culture in the US and Canada, even to regions that had never seen this music and dance before. If you’ve never been to a pow-wow, it can be a welcoming and wonderful experience and a good way to get a closer connection to Native communities in your own region. Still, if you buy an album of pow-wow songs, it can be a bit of an acquired taste. The high, soaring vocals take off like rockets from a launch pad, and most of the songs are based on vocables (and also on various Native languages). That said, the round dance has become a key point for modern Native songwriting, and often English verses are set into the stepped vocals of these songs. The lyrics are pretty accessible and speak to our modern lives. Take the song “Facebook Drama” from the pow-wow drum Northern Cree. In an effort to write a song about how ubiquitous Facebook is to everyone these days, songwriter Shane Dion worked with his wife Twila on this verse: “I read your status last night / You posted that someone else was / holding you tight. / You shared it for all our / friends to see. / I don’t wanna go through this / Facebook drama. /So I pressed ‘delete.’”
Spoken-word artist and author Gyasi Ross is a well-known pundit on national media, commenting on everything from the Washington Redskins’ name controversy to Trump’s candidacy on MSN, Gawker, Democracy Now and more. His debut album, Isskootsik (out on native-owned label Cabin Games), is a powerful blend of spoken-word poetry and hip-hop and indie production values. It’s incredibly effective, poignant, and thoughtful, without ever sacrificing a deep musicality. The temptation to call Ross the “Native American Gil Scott-Heron” is pretty strong, especially with a member of the Last Poets, Abiodun Oyewole, guesting on the album. With Isskootsik, Ross touches on everything from love to Native American fishing rights to poverty, storytelling, and single parenting. There’s a lot of hope in his words, but they also offer an unflinching look at what it means to be Native in modern America. Ross lives on the Port Madison Reservation just outside Seattle, on the very land that once housed Chief Sealth, from whom Seattle takes its name. Ross’ digital longhouse of an album welcomes all comers, but there’s a demand for respect and attention that draws our eyes to the fact that so many Native voices go unheard in our nation. Criticizing Macklemore’s infamous “White Privilege 2,” Ross asks for white allies to “pass the mic,” to let Native voices be heard. It’s a key message that Ross himself takes to heart, speaking up for others and claiming the mic for his own.
Pacific Northwest folklorist, composer and Cowlitz Native Si Matta doesn’t make music very often these days; he’s too busy gathering stories and organizing the large neo-folk or folk-metal festival he runs out of a ghost town in Washington. Matta’s home farm, Red Hawk Avalon, is the home each year to Thirst for Light, a gathering of bands from the Cascadian folk metal scene, and Matta is the impresario that brings them together. Neo-folk or folk metal are somewhat strange amalgams that could almost be described as acoustic new age music made by metalheads and based on spiritual heathenism or paganism. Neo-folk shows often take place deep in the forest with generators, and some bands only perform at ritual times. For a while, the Northwest was a hotbed for this music, as the pagan magazine, HEX was based in Portland and black metal band Wolves in the Throne Room earned national attention. Though many neo-folk bands are acoustic in nature, there’s still a pretty brutal metal element to the music for other bands. It’s a strange world, but Matta’s right at home. He’s a seeker and a fieldworker—the kind of person who sees deeper than his own natural environment, seeing back to ancestral Native sites and how the old stories he’s been collecting from elders still resonate around him. He runs a wonderful blog called Gathering the Stories and is one of the few folklorists to really have access to the Coast Salish and Columbia Gorge Native oral histories of his region. The music he makes as his alter ego, H A V E N, is a wash of atmospheric, droning ominence. It’s exactly the kind of music that fits in the rainforests of the Pacific Northwest, the kind of swelling sounds that can fill the spaces between the trees. Matta isn’t making music as much these days, but here’s hoping he’ll go back to his roots.
Waila, the music of the Tohono O’odham people of Arizona, is one of the most unusual sounds in Native American music, perhaps only second to Inuit accordion. With pumping accordion and saxophone lines mixed together, there’s a desert-like warble to these melodies, most of which are likely descended from Mexican or European sources. Waila’s known as “chicken scratch” music colloquially, and Southern Scratch is one of the best bands on the circuit. Headed up by bassist and guitarist Ron Joaquin, who learned waila music from his father, who runs the oldest chicken scratch band, Southern Scratch have brought waila music all over the U.S. and abroad and represent for the music on Canyon Records, the pre-eminent label for Native American music. You might think that this music has close ties to norteño or ranchero music in Mexico and the U.S., which it does, but traditionally this music has no lyrics. It’s derived from Tohono O’odham fiddle quartets and fiddle bands that used to play beautiful arrangements of local dance music. These fiddle bands are sadly no more, but the instrumental-nature of their music lives on in the electric waila bands. This is music of the American southwest, with tinges of Tejano and Cajun melodies mixing in as well. It’s dance music for all-night dance parties that take place as the heat of the desert starts to fade for the day. It’s a uniquely American art form.