You know the New Age movement really has a lot to answer for. Aside from all the charges of cultural appropriation that can be laid at their feet, there's also the small matter of the stereotype they've created of Native Canadian and American musicians. Hand Drums, Cedar Flutes, and chanting vocals are what all "real" Native musicians are supposed to be playing. At least that's what you'd end up thinking if you were to make your judgements based on what's available in your local New Age emporium.
This makes it really hard for those who want to follow the more traditional path of the pop musician. Rap, Rock, Funk, Blues, and for the older generation, Country, are just as popular on the Reservation as they are anywhere else and the folk who play it have the same ambitions as their counterparts in the city. Sure a lot of them do sit around teh Big Drum at Pow-Wows, and might even play the wooden flute on occasion, but that's not pop music and won't be played down at the local on a Friday night anymore then you're going to sing Mass in a bar.
So aside from the usual difficulties facing aspiring pop musicians Natives have to overcome the image that us non-natives have been foisting on them for the past twenty-thirty years. That's not to say they aren't spiritual or proud of their culture and heritage, but they can do that and play Rock & Roll at the same time. There have been plenty of good Native pop musicians who have had various degrees of success playing music ranging from folk to hard rock in the past, so it shouldn't be much of a surprise that a new generation of musicians share the same aspirations as their predecessors.
One of those up and coming stars of the new generation is Martha Redbone, whose lates release, Skintalk, came out earlier this year. Martha is of mixed African and Native American heritage and her music is contemporary without ignoring who she is or where she came from. She might sing about love and fun on "Stick Wit Me", but the very next song, "Medicine Man" talks about living in a traditional Native way.
There're two things that strike you about hearing Martha for the first time, one is her voice, and the other is the type of music she plays with her band. In these days of squeaky voiced little girls singing about who knows what, and spending their off days in rehab or on the front cover of People, hearing a woman who can sing in the mid ranged like Martha can is a treat on its own. The fact that she also has a voice with personality and expression is gravy.
She also has range, meaning she can start a song in the mid-range and putsh it all the way up into the high end without ever sounding like she's straining or doing something foreign to her nature as a singe. But it's when she's in her throaty, mid range, best, that I found her the most effective. She reminded me of some of the classic women voices from the soul and Motown eras.
Maybe that is also because she and her band play some of the finest Funk I've heard in a long time. Having never heard Martha before, I didn't know what to expect when I started the disc. So when that wonderful electric guitar sound came through my headset on the opening cut of the disc, "Hard Livin'" It was a great surprise. What is really good about this disc is that they can play the full spectrum of Rhythm & Blues, from hard Funk to the softer sounds of soul. Not only can they play those styles, but they also do them justice. Unlike so many others who confuse soulful with cheap sentiment, their music is the real thing, mellow with an undertone of something a little more – something that gives it body to go with it's soul.
I mentioned earlier her drawing upon her Native heritage for some of her lyrics at a couple of points on the disc. But on track eight she goes all out and brings in a Native Drum group to provide the opening for "Children Of Love, a prayer for the future. Interestingly enough the person leading the Drum group is Dennis Banks, one of the key members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) in the early 1970's.
For all of its problems AIM had been able to make it possible for people coming after them to believe in the possibility of a future where they could be proud of who they were, instead of being a dirty secret that nobody wanted to talk about.
At first the song was a bit disconcerting because there was no effort made to integrate the two styles of music with each other. But after listening to it a second time, I think that was the right choice as the contrast actually made both halves of the song that much more effective. Every so often the sound of the Native singers would come up into the mix on the funkier part of the song, and it felt like the voices of the past communicating their message of encouragement to the people of today and tomorrow.
Martha Redbone's new CD Skintalk is about as far removed from the so-called "Native" music that passes for authentic in lifestyle stores and boutiques as you could get without leaving North America. Instead, its the authentic voice of a modern woman who sings about the things that concern her the most. The fact that she is a Native American means that she will sing about that subject on occasion, but not in any way that's expected.
(Originally posted October 2007)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.