Saturday, May 7, 2011

In review--The Sacred Road of the Drummers

Kevin Yazzie
Love (Songs of the Native American Church)
Canyon Records

Porcupine Singers
Alowanpi-Songs of Honoring
Lakota Classics: Past and Present, Vol. 1
Canyon Records

I’ve reviewed Dinè songwriter Kevin Yazzie’s CDs in the past so I’m going to give a brief review of his latest, Love (Songs of the Native American Church).   Similar to another Dinè traditional songwriter Louis Gonnie, Yazzie’s vocals possess a strong spiritual resonance, especially when he sings in the lower register.  He offers 7 sets of songs or sung prayers to life, his family, his children, and to love.

Unlike some peyote song recordings, the water drum and shaker don't sound jarring here, but still creates a sacred atmosphere in which the singer delivers his harmonized vocals.  I’m listening to the first song set as I type this review and I feel alert instead of spaced out.  I find this recording accessible and someone who has never listened to peyote or harmonized songs can feel comfortable listening to it.  Remember that this music and the passing of the holy peyote are sacred and handled with great reverence.  The music here also honors the spirit realm in a respectful manner.  I think this is the Grammy nominee’s best work so far—beautiful and intelligent.

While harmonized songs fall on the relaxing side, pow-wow songs invigorate with the thundering heartbeat of the collective pow-wow drum and call and response vocals.  The Porcupine Singers, past and present offer up Lakota honoring songs on Alowanpi.  If you’re like me and you’ve not heard of the Porcupine Singers, you can read the extensive liner notes that give a historic overview dating back to 1963 when the late Severt Young Bear, Sr. founded the drumming and singing group.

The best place to hear pow-wow songs is live at an actual pow-wow drumming competition, but if that’s not possible, you can pick up any number of CDs featuring popular pow-wow groups.  However, it’s not as powerful an experience as watching the drummers, dancers in regalia, and singers in action.  And like any live performance, the musicians feed off the energy of the crowd of their peers, family, and onlookers (non-Natives).  You don’t want to miss out on this spectacular experience of seeing the colorful and vibrant dancers in their feathers and beads. You don’t want to miss out on watching drummers passionately pound on the large drums.  But in the meantime...

You can hear much of that excitement on Alowanpi-Songs of Honoring from performances of the original Porcupine Singer lineup and the current lineup.  I guess if you wanted you can compare and contrast the songs of the past and the present.  And while you wouldn’t be traveling on the pow-wow trail as these musicians would, you at least get a glimpse from the liner notes and the music about an important aspect of Native American cultures, and the preservation of traditions. And if you’ve never heard pow-wow songs, you’re in for a treat with this fiery disc.

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