When Hiawatha brought his message of peace to the original five nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, it was with an eye to the future. He knew that if they wanted any chance of surviving in the days after the arrival of the Europeans, they would have to stop fighting amongst themselves and unite. (He is widely credited with being the first person in North America to use the bundle of sticks being harder to break then each stick individually allegory).
The original five members of the Haudenosaunee (People of the Longhouse) were the Nundawaono – People Of The Great Hill (Seneca), Gueugwehonono – The Mucky Land People (Cayuga), Onundagaono – The People On The Hills (Onondaga), Onayotakaono –The Standing Stone People (Oneida), and the Ganeaganono – The Flint Place People (Mohawk). As events began to turn out like Hiawatha predicted, and the Europeans picked Indian nations off one at a time, a final tribe sought sanctuary in the Confederacy's territory.
The Dusgaoweh – The Shirt Wearing People (Tuscarora) were being pushed out of their traditional territory in the Carolinas and were perilously close to being exterminated, when they petitioned to be allowed to join the Haudenosaunee and be ceded land to live on and cultivate. So in 1722 the majority of them made their way to upstate New York to join up with the Confederacy, but some stayed behind and tried to survive as best as possible.
Pura Fe' Crescioni (most often simply referred to as Pura Fe') a mixed blood Tuscarora, Deer Clan on her mother's side and Spanish on her father's, grew up in New York City. She is the seventh generation of successive families of seven sisters; all of who are singers. On the enhanced portion of her most recent CD Hold The Rain, released by the Music Maker Relief Foundation, there is a video interview with her. In it, she talks about her memories of growing up with her mother and Aunts singing all the time. As the Tuscarora are matrilineal, it's only natural that she'd follow in the footsteps of these women and sing.
Initially she focused her energies primarily on performing traditional native music with the women's acappella trio Ulali. Somewhere along the line, she began feeling the pull of her roots and ended up in the ancestral territory of North Carolina. It didn't take her very long to understand the unique cross-pollination that music had experienced in this part of the world, traditional Native music and the African American Blues of the Carolinas.
We're not just talking about modern times either, but a cultural exchange that's been ongoing since the two people first had contact. Unlike European history where first contact with Native people refers to Europeans only, the oral histories of the Tuscarora and other nations speak of trade between the Americas and Africa long before the Santa Maria made a wrong turn at Albuquerque and ended up in the Bahamas instead of India. The logic of sailing due West when you wanted to go South/East has always escaped me, but some how a guy who didn't know how to navigate became a famous explorer.
Whatever the heritage or the roots of the music Pura Fe' plays she has a voice that could call the birds from the skies and rains from the clouds. For starters, her range is phenomenal; a low throaty bass growl, that I'm sure could make the earth tremble with enough volume. Her high notes are as pure and clean as the sound of an iced over lake singing on the coldest, stillest morning of winter as the sun is gently kissing the earth's surface.
If that sounds unreasonably poetic, I only ask you to reserve your judgement on my flights of fancy and sanity, until after you've listened to her. Of course, she can also play a mean lap – slide guitar, and uses a beautiful Hawaiian steel string that she makes sing. But on Hold The Rain she's overshadowed, and I'm sure she would be the first to admit this, by her lead guitar player Danny Godinez.
Pura Fe' refers to him as Seattle's best guitar player, and that's not hard to believe after listening to him play. He plays acoustic guitar, and makes it sound just as exciting as almost anybody else playing an electric guitar. Not only are his leads wonderful, he also provides the perfect support to Pura Fe's bottleneck slide. I think once people get a chance to hear him play on this CD, Seattle won't be allowed to keep him hidden away much longer.
As for the music on the disc, the songs are a great mixture of the modern and the traditional both in content and in style. The opening is a short piece performed by the Drum Pura Fe' sings with; The Deer Clan Singers, but as the echo from that is still resounding within your head, "If I Was Your Guitar" begins. I first heard a version of this on a MusicMaker's compilation disc where she dedicated it to Cool John Ferguson a, very sure fingered guitar player, and the innuendo of the words was hilarious. Not much has changed about the song since then, except that she's added a couple of voiceovers that will make you pee your pants laughing if you're not careful.
Personally, the highlight of the disc is her version of the old Gershwin tune, "Summertime" from the opera Porgy and Bess. (For some reason they credit Rogers and Hammerstein with writing the song when it was Ira & George Gershwin who wrote it – perhaps the other two own the rights now) I've always loved the song, and her adaptation, with an up-tempo, bluesy, second verse is great. It captures the true essence of the song without being welded to the original version.
Pura Fe' is one of the living treasures of the south, and in her music she captures two of the significant cultures from the Carolinas; African American and Native American. But this isn't some dusty anthropological recording, it's a living, breathing, and vibrant slice of music that's alive and kicking. Hold The Rain is a great album, by a great performer. The only regret you might have in picking up on this disc is that it ends too early. Ah well you can't have everything, but sometimes what you do get is pretty good.
(Originally posted November 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.