Archive for the ‘Native American’ Category

Music of Chiapas

May 18, 2015


from and

Modern Mayan: The Indian Music of Chiapas, Mexico (Mississippi LP)

When the dense fog of the Aquarian days of self-discovery lifted, many travelers found themselves in faraway places, perhaps with an unopened yurt kit, much more kelp than needed, or nursing a yearlong ayahuasca hangover. Richard Alderson found himself in Chiapas, Mexico, newly emigrated, with a pair of Electro-Voice mics and an incredible knack for finding amazing indigenous music in the highlands.

Alderson, an engineer for ESP-Disk, was behind the boards for many of the label’s finest sessions. Here we find a newly released version of his virtually unheard Folkways release, Modern Mayan: The Indian Music of Chiapas, Mexico, originally issued in the mid’ 70s.

There’s a gripping lyrical quality to this music that’s incessantly mystifying. Guitar and harp strokes entwine with primitive violin sawing creating this fierce emotional tug. When the locals are in the full band fiesta set-up, lazy trombones sag with wasted horn bleats, all sounding very out and very wonderful. This is absolutely devastating stuff, where occasionally homemade rockets are audible passing from left to right channels, all just part of the festivities.

Listening to modern Mayan music poses several problems.  This music grew out of 16th century European foundations on one hand, and on the other it is unlike any other music anywhere.  The European influence has been working continuously in indigenous life and consciousness, from conquest times up to the present, yet there is a strong presence of the ancient Mayan spirit surfacing in the style and rhythms of this music today.
Thus the tonal modulations in this music are simple and repetitive, and the harmonies are rudimentary.  The
rhythms, however, are complex and unrelated to European models or greatly transformed from them.
The intonation, while based on the diatonic scale and peculiarly close to fixed western pitches, is subtley different
from what any western musician would play.
Finally, the context of this music is completely different from the world as we know it,  necessitating the opening of our ears to another place and time.  However, the rewards are great when the borders are crossed musically into this
land of original American art.
See and listen also here.

Indian Nation and the Blues (pt. 2)

July 11, 2013


edited from Joe Gioia (

The question of North America’s original, or indigenous, inhabitants hardly ever comes up in popular histories of American music, the assumption being that the land inhabited by the European arrivals, and their slaves, had been mainly clear of earlier people and empty of song.

Africa and the British Isles were seen as the only possible sources of the music that evolved from that place and time. The possibility that the musical traditions of indigenous peoples might be central to American harmony has never been articulated, much less considered at length.

This is pretty remarkable, not only because so many of the musicians—black, white, and brown—had pronounced Native American roots, but by the given historical details of the settlement of the North American continent.

In 1901 the anthropologist Charles Peabody, while excavating a pre-Columbian Indian mound in the Mississippi Delta at Coahoma, became, he said, distracted by strange music. Professor Peabody is not remembered now for any artifacts he uncovered, but for what he discovered in the air, what he called the “extraordinary” songs of the black men working for him.

Professor Peabody’s reactions to African-American workmen’s songs—“monotonous” and “weird,” he said—is pretty much how Europeans described American Indian music. That Peabody may have been closer to the mark when he said the music sounded Asian is, for many, counterintuitive.

Between 1600 and 1840, three cultures—Native American, African, and European—each with a highly evolved choral tradition, came to encounter one another, in war and peace, by choice and under duress, in the old and new settlements of the vast American interior east of the Mississippi. To assume that only one of these cultures predominated in how the music evolved, or that another had no influence whatsoever, flies not only against logic but also in the face of any practical knowledge about how musicians work. (more…)

Indian Nation and the Blues (pt. 1)

June 27, 2013

Bo Carter

edited from Max Haymes (

The eastern territory in Oklahoma, the ‘Indian Nation’, was admitted to the United States in 1907, along with Oklahoma Territory. But because of lack of law and order and relative freedom from white oppression, which attracted working-class blacks, Blues singers up to thirty-five years later still referred to the “Territo” or “Nation”.

Another factor which would draw working-class blacks to the Nation, was that up until the middle of the 1920’s, cotton “…ranked above wheat as Oklahoma’s cash crop. It was grown throughout the southern half of the state, but the southwest was the real cotton section.” In the autumn, during the picking season, “…the towns were filled with happy Negroes rich with picking wages.”

Blues Singer State of Origin Tribe
Champion Jack Dupree Louisiana Cherokee
Scrapper Blackwell North Carolina Cherokee
Andrew Baxter Georgia Cherokee
Jim Baxter Georgia Cherokee
Sam Chatmon Mississippi Choctaw?
Robert Wilkins Mississippi Cherokee
Lowell Fulson Oklahoma Creek
Roy Brown Louisiana Shawnee?
Charlie Patton Mississippi Chickasaw or Choctaw?
Bo Carter Mississippi Choctaw?
Poor/Big Joe Williams Mississippi Cherokee
Leadbelly Louisiana Cherokee
Louisiana Red Mississippi Cherokee/Apache
Earlene Lewis Oklahoma Cherokee

Nearly two-thirds of the singers listed (again, the list is not exhaustive), have in fact blood-ties with the once large and powerful tribe Cherokee nation. For example, it is reported of pianist Champion Jack Dupree, that “As Jack’s mother had been a full­blooded Cherokee, he was permitted to bead himself, and belong to a Cherokee gang.”

Then there is Memphis-based guitarist, Robert Wilkins, who was born in Hernando, Miss. of whom Spottswood says: “His ancestry was Negro on his father’s side, white and Cherokee Indian on his mother’s.

Cherokee ancestry is also attributed to Scrapper Blackwell, erstwhile partner of Leroy Carr, who was “…of Cherokee descent.”

Slaven reporting on the origins of Mississippi’s Big Joe Williams (who often referred to himself as “Poor Joe”) says: “He was part-Cherokee, and his father John Williams was known locally as “Red Bone”.

The famous folk and Blues singer, Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter) was “born on January 29, 1885 on Jeter Plantation near Mooringsport, Louisiana, the only child of farmer Wesley and part-Cherokee Indian Sally Ledbetter.”

David ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards said of Sam Chatmon:  “Sam’s grandmother ‘Creasie’ Hammond was herself ‘half-Indian and half-white,’ he reported.”  Chatmon being a guitar-picking member of the popular black string band, the Mississippi Sheiks, who recorded extensively in the early 1930’s. At least one of Sam’s brothers, Bo Carter, who left the Sheiks early on to pursue a solo career, is recollected as “A racial hybrid of Indian, white and black descent,”

For the most part, those blacks who aspired to a bourgeois, white, middle-class way of life (and its values!), were often in a parallel state to that of the red man. It is a significant and also a consistent fact that someone of mixed racial blood is identified with the “lowest” category. So part-Indian, Bo Carter, naturally sings as a full-blooded Negro, when he refers to the general situation as described above:

“Oh! the white man wears his broad-cloth,
An’ the Indian he wears jeans;

But here come the darky with his over-halls on,
Just a-scratchin’ o’er the turnip greens.”

Mayan Fiddle

April 16, 2013

Screen shot 2013-03-10 at 6.52.38 PM

from notes to “Wood That Sings” (Smithsonian Folkways):

Screen shot 2013-03-10 at 6.00.54 PM


Population: Chuj Indians.

Date of recording: September 19, 20, 21, 1964

Circumstance of recording: Fiesta de San Mateo (September 18 through 22).

Violin and guitar from the neighboring village, Santa Eulalia. They were playing at the market and at the comedores (restaurants) and bars for 5 cents a tune.

Chuj Indian musicians, from “Music of Guatemala, Volume 2” (Folkways):

Gu-Achi Fiddlers

December 10, 2012

Gu-Achi Fiddlers – Old Time O’odham Fiddle Music (Canyon Records CR-8082)


by Shlomo Pestcoe (from

The Tohono O’odham are the largest Amerindian nation in the state of Arizona. Tohono O’odham  means “Desert People” in the Uto-Aztecan language of the O’odham, a reference to their homeland in the Sonoran Desert regions of southern Arizona and the northern Mexican state of Sonora. They were dubbed the Papago (Papahvi-o-otam, literally, “Bean People” in the language of the neighboring Akimel O’odham [Pima] who are closely related to the Tohono O’odham) by Father Eusebio Francisco Kino (1645-1711), the famed Jesuit missionary/cartographer/astronomer/explorer, who established the first missions in the region in 1686. In 1986, the tribal government legally replaced the sobriquet “Papago Indians” — long considered to be derogatory– with the term Tohono O’odham as the official name for this First Nation.

The O’odham fiddle tradition of stretches back to the earliest days of Spanish colonization. Catholic missionaries introduced European string instruments into the region for use in church services.

In the mid-19th century, Tohono O’odham fiddlers picked up the latest “pop” dance music forms to come over from Europe– the waltz, polka, mazurka, etc.– and adapted them to fit their musical culture. The music they created was dubbed waila,” (pronounced “wy-lah”) which comes from the Spanish word baile (lit. “dance”).

Waila fiddle bands provided the music for religious festivals, community celebrations and social dancing until the 1950s, when the fiddle was overshadowed by the button accordion and saxophone.  This was result of the pervasive influence of norteño music from Northern Mexico, in which the 3-row diatonic button accordion and the alto sax are the main lead instruments. A new O’odham style featuring those instruments emerged called chicken scratch, a reference to a traditional Tohono O’odham dance in which dancers kick their heels high in the air like chickens scratching. Today, the terms waila and chicken scratch are interchangeable and are both synonymous for contemporary O’odham vernacular social dance music.



Crooked Stovepipe

November 23, 2012


The Crooked Stovepipe is an enjoyable book concerned with music and dance forms developed by Upriver Gwich’in-speaking Athapaskan Indians after contact with Europeans. Contact was mainly with Orcadian employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company during the mid-nineteenth century, but significant contact also took place during the 1896-97 gold rush. The book is partly derived from Craig Mishler’s doctoral thesis (“Gwich’in Athapaskan Music and Dance: An Ethnography and Ethnohistory” [University of Texas at Austin, 1981]), but also includes material based on more recent research. Musical transcriptions by Pamela Swing are included in an appendix.

Crooked Stovepipe refers both to a fiddle tune and, metaphorically, to what Mishler calls “the culture that looks like nineteenth-century frontier America cocked at a bit of an angle” (p. 6). The author’s hypothesis is that Gwich’in fiddlers’ performance practice results from a syncretic relationship between “aboriginal-style singing and fiddling” (p. 147). The book provides the social and historical study necessary for analysis of these “crooked” versions of European-based fiddle tunes; the musical analysis necessary to support the idea of a syncretic musical style is not attempted. However, readers can refer to a recording of Gwich’in fiddlers produced by Mishler (“Music of the Alaskan Kutchin Indians” [Folkways Records, 1974; FE 4070] distributed by the Smithsonian).

Mishler begins, in chapter 1, with a discussion of the musical contact that took place during the heyday of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Using Company archives and secondary sources, Mishler identifies important musician-employees and describes dance-events held between 1848 and 1920. Chapter 2 contains biographical sketches of twentieth-century North Athapaskan fiddlers, based on secondary sources and field work.

These chapters lead us to the heart of the book, which examines the fiddlers’ repertory and the repertory of dances associated with this fiddle music. In chapter 3 Mishler examines Gwich’in fiddle tunes according to the categories developed by George Casey and others in “Repertoire Categorization and Performer-Audience Relationships: Some Newfoundland Examples” (Ethnomusicology 16 [1972]: 397-403). (more…)

Wood That Sings: Indian Fiddle Music of the Americas

July 25, 2012

Wood that Sings: Indian Fiddle Music of the Americas Smithsonian Folkways CD SF40472

Listen to Gervasio Martinez fiddle “Araku,” from “Wood That Sings”:

Reviewed by Heather Horner (edited from

For me, the recordings presented here fall into two groups.  The first half of the recordings, from South and Central America and Mexico, are of folk making music.  The second half of the recordings, from the rest of North America, are of people playing folk music.

The first track, from Bolivia, is a solo of short phrases, each culminating in a wonderful single string vibrato of pure rippling sound. Then a band from Columbia is driven by drums and pushed along by horns, while the fiddle has the melody.  From Peru, part of a long and complex annual fertility ceremony, where women’s voices and the fiddle alternate, interspersed with animal horns; you can feel the intensity of the participants, play Sound Clipwho are totally absorbed in their task.  The seke-seke from the rain forests of Venezuela provides some lively dance music, and the 3-string rabel from NE Argentina is accompanied by the local 5-string guittarra (sound clip).

A remarkably complex sound from Equador is provided by the 2-string kitiar, play Sound Clipthe melody inextricably interwoven with the vocal of a song of short phrases, in triple meter but with a strong beat, and with a simultaneous drone providing a shimmering undulation (sound clip).  The small tribes of Mayan descent in present-day Guatemala are represented by two contrasting tracks of Fiesta music, of violin with harp, and violin with guitar.  The latter tune has a complex rhythm, on the surface in triple time, but broken into two followed by four beats – is there such a signature as 3/6?   Mexico gets 5 tracks, all of very different character.  The first, apparently with Mayan influence, is again in the complex 3/6 or perhaps even 6/12 meter, with short, staccato notes on the home-made violin, accompanied by bombo and tarola drums (wonderfully onomatopoeic names). (more…)

Roots of Southern Fiddling (#2)

November 24, 2011


The fact is that American Indian music of the Eastern Woodlands and Plains favors a descending tune contour.  Today’s American Indian powwows are an excellent contemporary window into the same musical tradition, and one can hear thousands of tunes that follow the same overall melodic contour as the Upper South fiddle tunes.  It is worth reminding ourselves that powwow tunes are dance music, and they are often sung using vocables instead of words.  In effect, they are tunes of a class and function comparable to the fiddle tunes of British-American tradition.

We cannot prove this cultural influence on fiddling from the world of American Indian culture, and the evidence is more tenuous than in the case of syncopation and African American influence.  But no other cultural influence is in sight that can account for those thousands of fiddle tunes of the Upper South that, in contradistinction to all other regions of the English-speaking world, start at the top of the tune and cascade down.

We tend to picture American Indian traditions as isolated from the new emerging society of the Upper South in the 18th and early 19th century.  But the evidence suggests much more sustained cultural interaction in the early South than in the West later in the 19th century. There was extensive intermarriage in the South between American Indians and both Whites and Blacks.  And although we are not used to thinking about American Indian influence in the musical realm, there are many examples of American Indian cultural influence on Southern life in other realms, such as foodways and material culture.