Saturday, October 6, 2007

In Conversation--Native American Musician Mary Youngblood

Feeding the Fire with Music
Conversation with Mary Youngblood

Native American all-around musician Mary Youngblood's third CD, Beneath the Raven Moon arrived on my doorstep on a warm September evening of 2002. The timing couldn't have been more perfect since I had just performed my music on stage in between sets of a musical group I greatly admire. And I hadn't performed music for anyone in 6 years. No one until now, will know how long and hard I worked to get my chops up to par and how difficult it was to sing my songs in Spanish instead of the usual English. Yet, I believe as a musicians we must stretch our talent and give our best to others who care to hear our songs.

When I read the press notes for Mary Youngblood's recording, especially about how she was developing confidence as a performer by including her poetry and singing on one of her albums for the first time, I could relate. I stayed up late that night listening to Mary play her flute and sing her songs. I could see the magical raven flying underneath the moon and the raven's magic transported me to Indian time and Indian dreaming.

In 2004, I received Mary's CD, Feed the Fire in which she sung about Autumn Years of our lives, loss of loved ones in 2 of her songs, one through a separation between lovers who grew as far as they could in their partnership, and another through the death of a beloved husband. She performed along side Joanne Shenandoah (Iroquois), Bill Miller (Mohawk), and Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull. The musicians performed alchemy within a set of songs that crisscrossed musical genres including jazz, blues, Native American and classical music.

Recently, I received Mary's latest offering, Dance with the Wind, her most mature work up to this point in which she plays piano, flute and sings her poetry. And as we pass through a year in which we learned to respect the power of Brother Wind, not to mention Sister Rain; as we hear the warnings of Mother Earth to honor what is below our feet and above our heads and all around us, Mary's CD comes as a reminder of the Creator's love for us.

While it might be somewhat of a cliché to call Mary's flute playing haunting, it certainly reaches to the depths of our souls. She reminds us to get out of our own way and let Spirit flow through us as musicians, as artists, as writers and as human beings. She shares her stories with women and men through her poetry and through her breath that flows through her cedar flutes.

The GRAMMY and NAMMY-award winner, Mary Youngblood shared her thoughts and insights about her music with us in this e-mail interview. It is my hope that you will take the time to enjoy and soak in Mary's words of wisdom. It is also my hope that you will listen to the wisdom of her music and soak that in as well. Accept her offering of music because it will lead you to a peaceful mind and a loving heart. What more can anyone desire?

Patricia Herlevi: Your birth mother is Aleut, (Alaska) and your birth father is Seminole, (Florida), how does this diverse heritage play into the music you compose?

Mary Youngblood: I was adopted at 7 months old, and unfortunately was not raised with much knowledge of my cultures until I found my birth mother in 1986, and started my journey as a native woman. I think that my music reflects this woman’s search for both her musical and tribal selves. I believe that my music is as diverse as I am- having come from two different nations on opposite ends of the country, and having the experience of walking in both worlds as a musician and a Native woman.

PH: Beneath the Raven Moon reminds me of Alaskan and Canadian Native Peoples and their stories about Raven stealing the Moon and the Sun. Is this album influenced by your birth mother's heritage and any stories or experiences she shared with you?

MY: Raven is important in many Pacific Northwest coast tribes. From our oral history to creation stories and myths. Influenced by cultural history more than stories passed down from my mother unfortunately… Mom was sent to Mt. Edgecomb government school in Sitka, (Alaska), where many things were taken away from her including time, her language and the memory of traditions. But I loved the idea of how much the raven was so much like ‘coyote’ in other tribes stories. Raven is like trickster and has always played a significant role in stories and oral teachings of the peoples of the Pacific Northwest.

PH: I am interested in your classical music training. When did you first encounter the Native American flute? And was The Offering on Silver Wave Records, your first Native American flute recording? Were you performing and recording classical and other genres of music prior to recording The Offering?

MY: I was in my 30s when I first picked up a Native American style flute. My classical training was instrumental (pun intended) in terms of skills I brought in from the classical flute. I was blessed and ahead of the game from the get go, and would practice for hours and hours. I purposefully didn’t listen to traditional flute music as not to be influenced by any particular style. Compositions came to me immediately and I was hopelessly in love with this newfound instrument and to this day I truly believe IT found me!!

When Silver Wave Records and I found each other, I hadn’t had much previous recording experience and was thrilled to be doing what I dreamed of doing someday, which was record an album. I had done a few projects on other people’s albums such as All Spirits Sing (Joanne Shenandoah) And I had done the sound for a documentary for the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, and a PBS documentary, etc. Moaning Cavern, where I recorded Moaning Cavern is the largest one room Cavern in Northern CA, and is over 225 ft. deep. The natural reverb was so perfect for the solo flute!

PH: Each of your albums have received awards or nominations thus far, does this build your confidence as a songwriter? For instance, I notice that on each recording, you stretch further. On Beneath the Raven Moon you introduced your vocals and poetry, on Feed the Fire you brought in piano and worked with several musical guests. As a performer and songwriter myself, I know that working with musicians I admire and broadening by range of instruments on a recording, takes a great deal of courage. Can you comment on your musical journey and growth as a musician?

MY: I’m sure each success brings along with it, a little more confidence as well… but what I find cool about exploration with other artists, are the new and fresh ideas that particular player or co-writer brings to the table- the colour, texture and a certain spirit of the muse that delights me to no end! I’d like to think of myself as a musician's musician, a team player- so for me, the musical journey is so much more enjoyable to me when I can create something with other people... And as for Growth… Maturity and change is inevitable as we evolve as human beings and as artists. Growth is being that limb that reaches out for the sun in order to become tall and strong. To become a sanctuary that birds can land upon, shade from the sun and a safe canopy from the elements. With musicians, artists, and actors- we get the unique opportunity to take our audiences along with us on those sometime intimate journeys as we dance and sing our way through your souls… You get to see us morph and grow!

PH: Let's talk about your role as a songwriter. In the press notes, you articulated how many musicians feel in their relationship to The Creator in your statement, "I am only a vessel between Creator and this instrument." So how do songs reach you? Do you feel a certain energy and take that as a cue to sit down and compose? Do certain musical phrases appear in your thoughts or do you pray, meditate and compose in a state of reverence to The Creator or the flute?

MY: Many of my colleagues and peers feel the same way about their art. Whether you’re a sculptor or a composer, I’ve found that when we get out of the way, (i.e. ego) We are available and have opened ourselves up to Creator’s, or The Universe’s, or Grandmother’s energy. (or whatever you choose to call ‘it’) Some artist’s call it ‘being in the zone.’ Some say it’s like channeling energy through intention.

And yes, I usually always say a simple prayer before I play a song. “Bring joy, bring healing, bring goodness.” As a song writer, often musical phrases haunt me for weeks before the song finds an a middle, then an ending. Sometimes I’ve been blessed with a whole song all at one time…Zap!- it appears like a beautiful bouquet of wild flowers on your door step on May Day. A present, a gift. Other times I do hear a melody in my head and rush down to the music room to my piano and a cassette recorder. I notate key, rhythm, flute, and anything else I ‘hear’ to accompany it instrumentally. And of course songs come to me when I’m improvising with other musicians, again- it’s grab the recorder so I don’t let it slip away…

PH: The Native American flute has many roles. I have read that it is a courtship instrument, a healing instrument for instance. Could you talk about the roles of the Native American flute traditionally and the role it plays in your music and life?

MY: According to ‘Doc’ Payne (A N/A flute scholar and historian), the Native flute was rarely used in ‘traditional ceremonies’ per say, but was more of a social instrument. And yes- if you were a plains Indian or Southwest Indian, this instrument was used primarily by men, and used for courting. Now if you were to walk into a Cherokee Village 500 years ago, you might be greeted by a many flute players- men, women and children! So it really varied, tribe to tribe.

“The path of the flute player can be a challenging and lonely one…” Hawk Littlejohn use to say. Perhaps like the mythical character Kokopelli, we’re destined to roam the land playing our flute on this journey…For me, I prayed a little two word prayer a long time ago in regards to the gifts Creator had given me. "Use me. " And I have been so blessed along the way because of this beautiful and magical instrument.

PH: You are touted as the first Native American woman to professionally record the Native American flute. When you ventured on this path, I doubt you were thinking pioneering feminist thoughts, and I am guessing that you were moved by the beauty of the instrument and what you could do with it. Did you feel supported by the male professional Native American flute players? And have you encouraged other Native American women to also record Native American flute? Are there any budding women flute players among your students that we should keep an eye out for?

MY: I sure wasn’t thinking of any feminist thoughts at first no, but it didn’t take long to find out that some Native cultures don’t approve of women playing the flute. It was used primarily as a social instrument and used rarely in a ceremonial fashion. Although there are a few tribes, such as the Hopi, that used the flute in more serious ways... It has been an amazing journey. Not without challenge of course, and in some ways I have been a pioneer, although not always comfortable with that path, I have seen the purpose behind it all and I embrace being the one to forge a path through the brambles for my sisters! Because, like me, there will be others called by the Native American Flute!

PH: I listen to many Native American flute recordings by various players. I am touched by all those recordings, but I will admit that your recordings touch me on a deeper soul level because you are a woman. Because you speak about the cycles of a woman's life in your lyrics. Perhaps in this day and age it sounds a bit cliché to use the term "woman power," and yet, I get a sense of feminine empowerment when I listen to your recordings. Have any other women made similar comments to you?

MY: It’s more of a ‘woman validation’ theme. I’m going through what a lot of other women in the baby boomers age group are going through, and I have found that in the Indian community, many of us are choosing alternative and natural ways to deal with women’s issues that are based in tradition. We seem to adapt quickly, and move through this time in a positive and holistic, earth based way. Me- I plan to toss this out to my fans, my audience and joke about it being a ‘surviving’ life fan club- not a ‘Mary Youngblood’ fan club, although I do get to be the president! Heheh…

PH: Of course, your connections to the natural world and The Creator are something you share in common with Native American musicians of both sexes. I think the Native American flute is so popular among people of all races because it touches our souls and reminds us of the natural world. Do you wish to comment on this primal and ancient instrument, the flute?

MY: Man, I could go on for hours about stories about the amazing ways this instrument has touched peoples lives. And yes- it seems to take people back to the very depth of who they are, or at least finds it’s way to the deepest parts of the heart and soul. You betcha! Primal and beyond!

PH: On your newest release, Dance With The Wind, you meditate on the spirit of wind, trees, transformation and letting go of the old to embrace the new. How has this meditation on the spirit of trees and the wind assisted you with the necessary healing of letting go and allowing transformation to occur? What words of wisdom to you wish to tell your universal brothers and sisters also struggling with transformation? And also the healing powers of music and sharing the healing power with your listeners.

MY: Wow… such deep and personal questions. *laughing* I am totally NDN there, as sometimes I have a hard time sharing or showing my feelings, but I can somehow- through song. It’s certainly not uncommon, but if you listen closely, you can hear just how much this Aleut & Seminole woman wears her heart on her sleeve! So yes- a lot of raw emotions and feelings are affiliated with my music. I write about what I’m going through in my life and try to interpret it for you the listener, musically. And when I get out of the way, and let spirit come through, it can be healing. Music is always healing in the first place one way or another, but indeed I have found that just being on this fantabulous path has brought it’s own healing to me as well!

PH: Any final thoughts about your new recording that you wish us, the readers to take away with us?

MY: Live fully, love well and don’t forget to Feed the Fire whilst Dancing with the Wind! and  

This article originally appeared on Cranky Crow Whole Music and World Music Central

By Patricia Herlevi (May 2006)

This interview also appears in my book Whole Music