Golden Graham talks with the stars of country music

  Music of the Native North America

by Graham Lees


There is no doubt that a new found interest and appreciation of the history and culture of the Native American has developed over recent years, due to more accurate detailed movies such as A Man Named Horse, Dances With Wolves and Thunderheart. They have helped convey a small part of the Indian culture to millions of people throughout the world. While on holiday around the Wyoming and South Dakota areas of the USA, I had the opportunity to experience some of the fine music and dancing of the North American The rock sculpture of Crazy Horse in progressIndian.

At the Crazy Horse Memorial Centre, situated in the Black Hills of South Dakota, sees the work progressing on the mountain carving of Chief Crazy Horse. Started in 1948, the statue will see Crazy Horse sat on his horse with an arm outstretched. At present only the head of Crazy Horse is complete, there is still many years of work to be done before the monument will be finished. At the visitor centre, a small group of children sat round a large Indian drum beating out a rhythm with one of the tribeís adults. They demonstrated how the drum was used in their music and how childrenís interest was drawn, by using adapted nursery rhymes, such as Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, being changed to Twinkle Twinkle Morning Star for their own purpose.

Inside the large hall we found several Native Americans busily making and selling their jewellery and goodsSculpture of Crazy Horse at the visitor centre and the rock sculpture in the background. Bryan Akipa is a carver and player of the traditional Dakota Indian flute and I spent only a small amount time talking to him (due to our tour schedule), as he quietly sat working on one of his red-cedar flutes. Bryan is a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Sioux Tribe, telling me that he is a self taught player and woodcarver and that the Indian flute is meditative, emotional and visceral. Bryan said, ďin the old times the flute was the music of lovers. The essence of the wind, the melody of a red cedar flute, where it comes from and where it goes is a mystery. So is everyone born to the spirit of love.Ē

Bryan gave us a short demonstration of his music, which includes the sound of nature, including several birdcalls, crickets in the summer night air and the sounds of the gentle wind blowing through the cottonwood trees, very soothing and relaxing and can be heard on Bryanís CD The Flute Player.

Indian Flute player BryanAkipa at the Crazy Horse Visitor CenterAs a young man Bryan Akipa attended the Institute of American Indian Arts and studied fine arts with Oscar Howe at the University of South Dakota at Vermillion. After graduation he became an elementary school teacher for seven years. Since 1991 he has committed himself to his chosen art and craft of the cedar flute. Bryan has composed several pieces of his own music and says, ďAs I turn my ear to the music, I can only imagine my great-grandfathers, but their old songs are still here and the new are part of me.Ē  

Cheyenne Frontier Days is the biggest outdoor rodeo in the world and known affectionately as the ďDaddy of `em AllĒ. On the South side of Frontier park stands the Indian Village, portraying many aspects of the Native American art and culture and in particular their music and dancing. William Gutierrez is considered by many to be one of the premier Native American flute players in the USA. William performs both traditional songs as well as his own compositions. He explained to me a little about the cedar flute and the musician.

ďIíve been making and playing flutes for about 27 years. When I was given my first flute, was actually at a Pow Wow in Bismarck, North Dakota, where my teacher was setting up a display to sell his flutes for the very first time in his life. I was sat next to him and saw the flutes (Iíd always loved the sound of the flute) and asked him the very same question that Iím asked today. Are they hard to play? He said no, what you do is close your eyes and let your heart tell you how to play. It will tell you which finger to lift next He said just close your eyes and try this one. I was a little embarrassed by that, I wasnít going to close my eyes, there were hundreds of people walking by. A little later when things slowed down and there wasnít as many people, I took one of the flutes and I kinda snook to the back of the booth and I closed my eyes and started doing what he told me. I started listening to my heart and this song started coming and I was going wow, Iím going to have to buy one of these. When I finished at that point, what I called my song, I opened my eyes and he was standing right in front of me. He had a look in his eye and said you felt that didnít you. A little embarrassed I said ahhh; it must have been indigestion or something. He goes yeah! thatís what I thought and he pulled a flute from behind him and said this is for you and gave me the flute. I was really taken by that and he said that he wanted to teach me the beginning of a song and he wanted me to finish it. I said I canít do that, I donít know how to do this. He said itís the same way as you just played your song. I said can I practice for a couple of days (this was to be a weekend Pow Wow). He said sure, do anything you want. So I went back to the hotel and stayed up till three o-clock in the morning practicing this piece that he had given me and practicing  and composing the finish. I did that for two nights in a row and on Sunday when the Pow Wow wound down and as we got to the end, I said are you ready to here my song. He goes, yep! So we went over to the corner and I began to play the song as he had taught me, with the intention of playing it the way I had been practicing and loosing sleep over for two nights, but what I came out with was something completely different and so I just went with the flow and the song finished itís self. When it was over he had that same look and asked me if I would like to learn how to make them. Now Iím really Indian flute maker and player William Gutierrez at Cheyenne Frontier Daysshocked and said sure. I questioned it, I said I really donít understand. I met you just two days ago, youíve given me a flute and now you want to teach me how to make them. How come? His teacher, (which was 17 years prior to that) had passed on the instruction, that if you can find somebody who can finish the song, teach them. It was really an honour to date, because he has now passed and I was his only student. He gave me the same instruction, that someday you will find somebody who can feel it and finish the song, teach them. And I will! But what does it mean to me, I donít know what it means to me, because with those instruction, listen to your heart, your heart will tell you which finger to lift, has never let me down in 27 years.  

I developed an insatiable curiosity about the flute. I stated asking not only my own people, but other elders, brother and sisters from other tribes about the flute. Where did it come from, how did they make them, so on and so forth. Over the years I have been taught or given over 300 songs. Non of these songs are written down, they were all sung to me and sometimes it is quite a chore. I have to hum it to myself for 600 miles so I donít forget it, (laughs) until I get to a recorder. Every one of these songs, almost inevitably, the person would tell me, play it how you feel or play this how your heart tells you, so it becomes your song. 

The other part of it is, that since I started playing the flute I hear the songs. There are a few special places that I go to. One of them is Eagle Canyon in Utah. I can go there and spend as little as an hour and get a new song. Or I can spend a few days there and get a few songs. I just hear the songsÖthey come on the wind, they come through the trees, they come through the canyon walls and all I do is interpret what I hear out there to the flute. Then I just repeat that and share it with as many people as I can.Ē

William told me about a few of the things that the flute can be used for.

ďThe flute can emulate a loon, the eagle, the dove, the hawk and can not only emulate birds, but animals as well such as the Elk. The flute at one time was primarily used traditionally for prayer and meditation in most cases amongst a lot of my people. However, it was used as a courting flute, to serenade the young girl and try to win her heart. There was one other instance that it was used, which is really not well known anymore, it was actually used to hunt. They could use the flute to bugle in Elk. Now in playing the flute it disrespectful to over blow the flute, to try to get to another octave. However the only time it is overblown, it will bugle in four octaves and it will sound just like the Elk. I have been told this story a long long time ago, how they would use it as such. I was in the Hickory Apache reservation in New Mexico and just happened to be there at the time of year when it was the rut and you could hear all the Elk bugling out there. So I decided to try it and it bugled in one of the biggest bulls Iíd ever seen, (gust of laughter) yeah!    

When I play my flute, other than in a setting like this. Here, today is a commercial setting, the Indian Village is free and the entertainment is free, it is entertainment and I share the songs that I have been given or again, call my own compositions. But I have a time when I have to be out there to play and that is not as routine as if I just took my flute and started playing somewhere. What does it mean to me, the prayer and meditation aspect of it? It has probably helped me more ways in my life, than most people will ever receive in their lives.

Just by sitting and playing my songs is assuring. The flute has been described as haunting, mesmerising, hypnotic, it is all those things, but to give a for-instance: Every morning I play at least one song. I try to get up at sunrise (which sometimes can be really hard) and Iíll play a song that was given to me by a good friend in Sassooni Pueblo called the Sassooni Sunrise song. The Sassooni Sunrise Song, as name implies is first thing in the morning as the sun is raising and is a prayer song, giving thanks to the creator giving thanks to continue on your path for one more day. So if I donít get to play anything else, I always play that in the morning.   

Sometime I feel like playing another song and then another. And sometimes itís like two oíclock in the afternoon and Iíve been sitting playing the flute all day and havenít got any of my work done. But, that is one of those times when the songs come and it compels you to play another song and then another song.

Then also the songs are never played the same way twice. In concert here, I can play the same song every day in every set, but even then there is always going to be something a little bit different about it, because the heart always feels a little bit different from minute to minute and day to day. And I never forget to listen to my heart. It will always tell me which finger to lift and it does!Ē

I asked William to compare the cedar flute with the conventional modern day flute, as seen in orchestral works.

ďIn modern day times, there are a lot of flute makers who will put them into any key that you want and make them chromatically correct. After I learned to play flutes, I learned how to do this too. I could put them in any key, E or G or F and use an electronic tuner to make sure they were in the right scale. Actually after I started doing that it didnít feel right. I went back to my teacher and we were talking about it. I told him, Iíd learnt this neat thing, but it wasnít right, how come?  He reminded me that within the flute they say, dwells a spirit. It is this voice that you hear. Like all of us, we all speak, we all sing in a different voice. He said never force the spirit to sing in anotherís voice, allow it to sing in itís own voice. The only reason that you need a chromatic scale is to play with other instruments. Traditionally it was never meant to be played with other instruments. So this made sense to me and I reverted back to just keeping mine in a traditional scale. For instance, the length of the flute is equal to the makers arm. Then use the palm widths, finger widths for the placement of all the holes. The diameter of the flute is equal to the makers thumb. So somebody much taller or shorter than me, with bigger or shorter hands, their flute would be completely different. That ratio of measurements produces a scale and therefore the flute is in scale in itself. But they say that the flute is characteristic of itís maker because of the makers size.Ē

ďI have a lot of players that do play my flutes and have a lot of comments that there is just something about my flutes that they just canít put their finger on thatís different. What it is, is the traditional scale. In these days, from the moment that you are born you hear a chromatic scale, so when they hear my music, itís The Friendship Dance in the Indian village at Cheyenne Frontier Daysdifferent, itís just something that they havenít heard and canít put their thumb on. What it is, is a traditional scale.Ē

The drum is the primary instrument in Native American culture and music and in all kinds of music the drum maintains the beat. I talked to Frank Armajo who is the musical director for the North American Native dance troop performing at Cheyenne. An unassuming and quietly spoken man, Frank told me a little about the traditions of the Indian music and dancing.

ď The meaning, I guess, the drum has been with us since time began, as it has always been a part of our life and culture. The songs come from different people. They might have a dream or they might just come to them. A song for a certain occasion, or for dancing here. Some of the songs are handed down from generation to generation. Some of the real old songs that we have, have special meanings. It is hard to say how old some are. There are some that we use in special ceremonies that we donít know how old they are, they have always been with us. Some we use in Pow Wows are a little more modern and some of the singers make them up as they go along. Some are pretty old, twenty, thirty years old, but we still use them. They are still good today for whatever we need in the dances we do.

The drum is played in what is called a push-up. It is a verse that is played over. They play four beats called down beats and they have different meanings for that. To honour someone, or honour the dancers. In Menís Traditional dance, it symbolises gunshots. So when you watch some of the traditional dances, you hear four beats, they go down, put a wing up or their shield, and this symbolises the gunshot, someone being shot at in battle. So that is why they go down. You will see a lot of the dancers lift their wings up or their staffs when that beat comes on and they bless the people and the drum. The beats are the time when they recognise the people, bless the drum and the singers.Ē 

I asked Frank to explain a little about the dances themselves.

ďSome of the dances have been with us for a long time, like the Grass Dance. In the old days, they were the ones who went out ahead of everybody and they found a camping spot and they flattened the grass with dancing movements. So the dance is still with us today. Now the Menís Traditional is a warriors dance. They would go out hunting, or fighting the enemy and then they would come back and tell us the story in movement. Sneak-Up especially tells of looking for somebody, or hunting something. They look and they go. They do that three times and the fourth time is when they reach the enemy or catch their game, They are victorious and that is when they do the last dance, the Victory Dance. The Women's traditional has also been with us a long time and one of the oldest dances we have. It is really a graceful dance to watch, truly a beautiful dance. The Jingle Dance is also called the Healing Dance, which has also been with us a long time. But the other dances such as The Womenís Fancy Dance, the Womanís Fancy Shawl and the Menís Fancy have been with us since around the 40s and are more contemporary, brighter colours, they are faster, it takes a lot of hard work to do them. Then there is the Hoop Dance. It symbolizes the cycle of life. The four seasons and how life goes in a circle, that is what he is portrays in his dance.Ē

The music of the North American Native is truly a fascinating subject. Although I have only scratched at the surface, I hope by writing this article that I have offered our readers a very small insight, into this amazing form of traditional music.



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