From Kokopelli's To Electric Warriors: Native American Culture Of Music
Submitted by Ann Van Wert
From the swamps of the Everglades to the deserts of Santa Fe and the concrete canyons of Manhattan, the heartfelt music of Native America is getting off the reservation and into the mainstream of America.But how can a culture that many think of as dead or merely history make its presence felt in the complex and competitive world of modern American music?
In these pages are visions of some of the major Native American players, artists, musicians, activists, and singers as diverse as Bill Miller, Rita Coolidge, Joey Ramone, John Trudell, Hank Williams III and Wayne Newton. There are profiles of festivals, award shows, and songwriters in places as peaceful as the Smoky Mountains and as glitzy as the Las Vegas strip.Native American music: It’s not just for powwows anymore.
Sandra Hale Schulman is an entertainment writer, editor and journalist. Her work has appeared in Billboard, Variety, Country Music Magazine, and various Tribune Media publications. She is on the Board of Directors for the Native American Music Association (NAMA), and is a member of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS). Raised in New York, she currently lives in Nashville, Tennessee.
Chapter Nine - Into The Mainstream: NAMA
In the early 1990s’, a story on Florida band Tiger Tiger’s latest album "Dream Scout" was submitted to Billboard magazine as part of their bi-monthly column on the best unsigned talent in America. Several weeks went by and the story never ran. When the editor was asked why, they replied that they didn’t think it was something that any mainstream record labels would be interested in.
A year later Billboard published their first Spotlight issue - a special section devoted to just one subject - Native American Music. This nine page feature covered the big picture of the genre - while singling out the eight independent Native American music labels as well as the mainstream labels - Mercury, Warner Brothers, Capitol- that were picking up Native American artists.
The special section has run annually ever since. It quoted artists like Joanelle Nadine Romero who stressed that "It’s been difficult to find places where we can perform and be judged simply on the merits of our work. Since Native Music now includes so many different styles and sounds, the need to break out of the reservation is more important than ever."
"Part of the process is educating our own people," admitted Tom Bee, president of SOAR Records. "We strive to book our contemporary artists at traditional Indian gatherings so people can see and hear for themselves what’s happening in their musical culture. It’s the first step toward the mainstream."
Legitimizing Native American Music as a format is the current goal of marketing and public relations visionary Ellen Bello. She is based in a New York City office on the aptly named Avenue of the Americas, where sage burns next to computers and stacks of CDs and magazines. Bello is almost single handedly taking Native American music to the masses.
As the founder of In-Press Communications - a national public relations, management and marketing firm that specialized in recording artists, In-Press became the first firm to represent Native American artists Robbie Robertson, Rita Coolidge & Walela, Mirabal, Songcatchers, Burning Sky, Pura Fe and Red Thunder.
Bello was responsible for securing performances for her artists at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta Georgia, the Democratic National Convention and at Presidential Inaugural Balls. She has served as a judge at the Gathering Of Nations and has contributed to the New York weekly The Village Voice. She has no Indian heritage, but her spirit is as strong as a full-blood.
"This is a genre that just won’t let me go," says Bello. "When I first heard this music I was blown away by the heart and struggle of it. The key to all this is creating the same things that other formats have, like weekly charts (collected from radio stations across the country), a website, an association (the Native American Music Association, formed in 1996) and an awards show.
The first Native American Music Awards show was held on May 24, 1998 at the enormously successful Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut, which is owned by the Pequot tribe. The show served as a who’s who in Native America and played a major role in educating the public about Native Americans in the arts - people that range from Jimi Hendrix to Elvis Presley, James Dean, Willie Nelson and ebullient host Wayne Newton.
Presenters included Joe Walsh, Bruce Cockburn, Richie Havens and John Trudell. Live performances were interspersed with 20 award presentations, plus a Lifetime Achievement Award for Robbie Robertson’s tireless efforts in both music and the Native American rights struggle.The success of the event led to international press coverage, plans for a compilation CD of the winners and an international tour.
The event was filmed and broadcast on the A&E channel. Bello also has begun compiling an archive of music and a TV show to highlight Native American dance. NAMA’s website (www.nativeamericanmusic.com) got 10,000 hits the first month, just a small indication of the potential audience. "Native American Music has taken a giant step forward with these shows," says Bello. "The time is right for this music and these artists to find their rightful place in the mainstream." By the second NAMA show in November 1999, the award categories had doubled to include the far reaching genres of rap/hip hop, blues/jazz and folk/country.
NATIVE UNITY - A place for Native American Peoples to solidify their tribes to make a positive impact on the cultural, social, economic and political fabric of American society and a place for non-Natives to better understand the ways of the American Indian.