Walking in both worlds

Three award-winning Native American musicians will perform at this weekend's Gathering of the Tribes Pow Wow

Posted: Wednesday, July 03, 2002

Native American flutist and singer Mary Youngblood recorded her first album in a cave in 1997. This year she opened concerts for B.B. King and Chris Isaak.

Inspired by tradition and open to modern influences, Native American musicians such as Youngblood and Joanne Shenandoah are enjoying the best of two worlds.

"I love the direction Native music is going," said Youngblood, who is of Aleut and Seminole descent. "Native music is just blossoming."

Youngblood, Shenandoah and Robert "Tree" Cody will be featured in concert Saturday, July 6, at Centennial Hall. The concert is part of The Gathering of The Tribes Pow Wow, taking place Friday through Sunday, July 5 through 7, in Juneau.

Singer and songwriter Shenandoah's newest recording, "Eagle Cries," features guitar work by Bruce Cockburn and a song Shenandoah co-wrote with Neil Young. A multi-instrumentalist, Shenandoah said her 11 albums contain Native themes, but are not necessarily what people would consider Native music.

"It's music inspired by Native lifestyle, the importance of the land, the importance of us being one," she said.

She described "Eagle Cries" as folk-rockish, but said she doesn't like to categorize herself.

"I play in all styles," she said. "I can't really generalize - music is more universal."

Drew Singh, a chef in Juneau, has been a fan of Shenandoah since the early 1990s.

"She used to record in her Native language," he said. "Now she sings in English. She has a sweet voice."

Shenandoah said her songs in Iroquois are celebrations, and that's apparent to the ear.

"You don't have to understand the language," she said. "Like the songs on (the album) Peacemaker's Journey,' they take you to a place of peace."

All three musicians performing this weekend compose their own music. All have won many musical achievement awards, including "Nammies" - Native American Music Awards. Shenandoah's CD "Peacemaker's Journey" was a Grammy nominee in 2000 for the first "Best Native American Album" category.

Cody, a flutist and singer, has eight albums. His most recent, "Crossroads," brings together the music of the Native people of the Great Plains and Mexico, combining the talents of Cody, Mayan flutist Xavier Quijas Yxayotl, flamenco guitarist Ruben Romero and percussionist Tony Redhouse.

Youngblood has three CDs. She recently returned from Italy, where she recorded the soundtrack for a full-length animated feature. Shenandoah has composed and recorded music for PBS, the Discovery Channel and four episodes of the television show "Northern Exposure."

Before she became a full-time musician, Youngblood worked in a Native art gallery in Sacramento, Calif., where she still lives. She compared contemporary Native music to another art form - ceramics.

"I was so excited to see Native pottery with traditional symbols but in nontraditional shapes," she said. "Or a pot traditionally fired with sheep dung oxidation, but with Mickey Mouse painted on it. We are able to incorporate and walk in both worlds."

It's exciting, but it's not necessarily easy, she said.

"It's something I pray about all the time," she said. "I have to be true to myself and the art form, be true to my feelings and how I want to express myself."

Youngblood is especially appreciative that modern times and values allow her to play the flute. She said Aleuts did not have flutes, and among many plains tribes only men were allowed to play flute.

"I don't generally do pow wows, because it was really taboo for women to play flute," she said. "It depends on the nation. There was no taboo against women flutists with the Cherokee, and there are tales of visitors to Cherokee villages being greeted by a hundred flute players - men, women and children, all playing."

Youngblood plays a traditional-style instrument, but she does not play ancient melodies.

"The purists, they give us something to compare it to, the way it was actually done, and that's cool," she said. "Then we can develop something in our own way."

Concert organizer Garfield Katasse said that because the concert is part of the pow wow festivities Saturday at Centennial Hall, the starting time is not firm. He estimated it would start about 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 at the door, which includes admission all day to the pow wow.

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