Discovering Contemporary American Indian Music

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My wife and I recently watched season one of the Discovery Channel’s Flying Wild Alaska. If you haven’t seen it, each episode typically starts with a studio shot of the only local radio station in Unalakleet, Alaska: AM 930 KNSA.

It’s reminiscent of Northern Exposure's "Chris in the Morning" and even reminds me a little bit of WOUB's Radio Free Athens. "It’s a beautiful morning in downtown Unalakleet with a balmy high of minus-three degrees today…"

That opening is the part of the show that I most enjoy because AM 930 plays contemporary music of the First Nations. It really piqued my interests to seek out more music from American Indians that wasn’t just the well-known material from Robbie Robertson and Buffy Sainte-Marie (don't get me wrong; I like them) or New Age flute music that you listen to while getting a massage (I enjoy that too).

It took some searching, but after combing through Amazon, CD Baby and a handful of other websites, I managed to track down some really interesting music, some of which I have played on Radio Free Athens.

One thing that really strikes me about much of this music is the use of spoken word. "Theo’s Dream" by Robert Mirabal is a good example of this. He mixes politics and emotions into a distinctive poetic and traditional-sounding song. I love the last few lines: "Please don’t forget our love songs, they only become stronger. Please don’t forget."

Another new discovery is Joy Harjo, who mixes elements of jazz horns with traditional drums and rhythms and lyricism. A YouTube search turns up as many poetry reading videos as songs. "Creation Story," featuring the band Poetic Justice, is a good example.

One of my favorites so far is Keith Secola. He’s one part Neil Young, another David Bryne, and sometimes James McMurtry. I’m surprised he’s not well-known. If you run across his album Wild Band of Indians, pick it up.

If you’re in the mood for a wide variety of other sounds, do a search for these artists and bands: Tagaq, Lunar Drive, and Pamyua. In my capacity as “music orderer” for the Athens County Public Libraries, I’ve picked up copies of albums by all these artists, plus a few more. Keep an eye out on the shelves.

Finally, if you’re looking to dabble in contemporary Native American singer-songwriters beyond Robertson and Buffy Saint-Marie, I highly recommend the 1997 disc Tribal Fires as a starting point. It has songs by nearly every artist that I’ve mentioned.

When James Hill isn't working for Athens County Public Libraries, he can be heard Saturday mornings on WOUB AM's Radio Free Athens from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m.