Mixing culture, mixing media

Posted: Thursday, June 05, 2008

Preston Singletary has built a career blowing glass sculptures. He is a world-renowned Tlingit artist who creates sophisticated Northwest Native designs, but like many artists, he has skills in other areas.

Courtesy Of Preston Singletary
Courtesy Of Preston Singletary

"I normally say I'm a musician trapped in the body of a glassblower. My visual art is what keeps me rolling along," Singletary said. "I think music would have been my first choice, but it didn't really pan out for me so I kinda fell back on my art career."

Having his glassblowing career to fall back on has allowed Singletary to approach music more freely without the pressure to make a living at it.

Singletary grew up playing piano and guitar, but later discovered he liked the bass best because of the percussive sounds he could get with the slap style of playing. "It's kind of like a drum and a guitar at the same time ... the way it drives the rhythm," he said.

Two years ago, Singletary combined his music and Native background and co-formed a band called Little Big Band. The eight-member group plays 70s-style funk music with elements of soul, jazz, rock and blues. Their show highlights performance art, theater, poetry and spoken word with a Native message. Singletary described it as "a lot of metaphorical Native culture woven into a funk-blend."

"We're writing material and it's not something that we're choking the life out of to make it work. We're not desperate to get our record deal or anything. We're treating it like an art project," Singletary said of the band's music.

The group formed a couple years ago to work on a documentary soundtrack project for the Seattle Art Museum. That same year they performed at the Daybreak Star Cultural Center and Celebration 2006 in Juneau. Since then they've played shows for the Native American Housing Council, Seattle's Experimental Music Project and Northwest Folklife. They are currently working on a six-song EP, yet to be titled, due for release this summer.

Another member of the band is Juneau-born Tlingit-Cherokee-Filipino actor and performance artist Gene Tagaban.

"Gene plays flute, but then he comes out in Northwest Coast Native masks and he's like the Raven dancer," Singletary said. "He comes out with these Raven wings and so there's this very theatrical, visual aspect to our band."

James Luna, who is Luiseno Indian from the La Jolla Reservation in California, is a conceptual artist who brings visual and performance art elements to the band.

"His work has challenged viewers to contemplate the notions of how people perceive Natives and how Natives perceive themselves," the Little Big Band Web site reads. His installations often feature political elements that challenge the audience to look at "cultural identity, cultural isolation and cultural misinterpretations."

On stage, Luna acts out a variety of "visual antics" that highlight the band's performance art elements.

Singer Star Nayea is a Grammy-winning Native American vocalist who offers a "powerful pop style" to the group's dynamic.

"She likes to bring positive messages to the music. One of the songs that we do is called '21st Century Skins' and the lyrics go: 'See us pimpin' the old ways, it ain't nothin' like yesterday, even down to our giveaways, we're 21st century skins.' It talks about the questioning of 'how Native are you?'" Singletary said.

Nayea has performed with Robbie Robertson, formerly from The Band, and Native American spoken word musician John Trudell, among others.

James Rasmussen, who plays trumpet and flugelhorn with Little Big Band, is Duwamish Indian and a descendant of Chief Seattle. He is also a composer, teacher and director of the Jazz Police, a Seattle big band.

Keith Montgomery is Cherokee and plays guitar in the band. He's also a singer-songwriter and music arranger.

The band's only non-Native members are African-American Maurice Caldwell Jr. on guitar and Euro-American Terry Maloney on drums, both accomplished Seattle musicians.

Little Big Band wanted to play at Celebration this year, but the logistics and funding for an eight-piece band are difficult, Singletary said. The band is looking at other projects, including developing a music program for the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. and performing for the opening of a show there.

"We're in the driver's seat because we're not reliant on this being our only creative outlet. Everybody does other things and we come together for this band and we're hopeful that once we get a recording done that we'll be able to have something to show, a good example of what we do."

• Teri Tibbett is writer and musician living in Juneau. She can be reached at www.tibbett.com.

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