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The Native American Beat

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 17, 2004; Page WE34

The First Americans Festival, featuring more than 300 participants representing more than 50 tribes and native communities, provides a splendid overview of the richness and diversity of Native American music and culture and an opportunity to dispel mainstream stereotypes about how such music sounds. Many nonnatives tend to think of it as spartan, mostly sung in tribal languages, or performed on hand drums, rattles, gourds and bells -- aural museum pieces.

In recent years the bridge-builder to mainstream audiences, and the most consistent-selling genre within Native American music, has been the flute music of R. Carlos Nakai, Mary Youngblood and Kevin Locke, among others. Though this music tends to be lumped into the New Age category, over the past two decades, native music has been brought into more contemporary "pop" contexts, from hard rock, blues, reggae and hip-hop to country, gospel and waila (or "chicken scratch"), a lively form of polka music developed by the Pima and Tohono O'odham of Southern Arizona. In a preview of next week's First Americans Festival, Ron Joaquin and Southern Scratch will perform Friday at noon and 5 p.m. on the Mall in front of the Freer Gallery of Art, introducing a music that actually dates back more than 100 years but has only recently scratched at the door of mainstream acceptance.

From left, siblings Horse, Pte, Mato and Wanbdi Nanji of Indigenous. (Silvertone Recordings)

The same might be said of native music in general, though its range and vitality are well represented in Tuesday's opening concerts at the Four Directions Stage, as well as the performances that will take place on various stages in the following week. Concert highlights include:

• The afternoon concert, from 1:15 to 5, features:

Pamyua, an a cappella quartet from Alaska that blends traditional Yup'ik song, drum and dance performance with R&B, jazz and world music (one writer likened them to Ladysmith Black Mambazo).

Joanne Shenandoah, a Wolf Clan member of the Oneida Nation. Sometimes compared to Enya, Shenandoah uses both traditional and modern instruments in styles that range from tribal chants and atmospheric New Age chamber music to folk songs and contemporary pop.

Ulali, an a cappella trio blending traditional and contemporary indigenous music, featuring Pura Fe Crescioni (Cherokee-Tuscarora), Soni Moreno (Maya-Apache-Yaqui) and Jennifer Kreisberg (Cherokee-Tuscarora).

War Party, a Cree hip-hop ensemble from Alberta, Canada. Led by Rex Smallboy, the group has opened for such acts as Wu-Tang Clan, Ice-T and Mack 10.

• The evening concert, starting at 5:30, features some more familiar names:

Buffy Sainte-Marie, the Cree singer-songwriter-activist who first made a name for herself in the '60s in the folk boom, gained a new audience during a five-year "Sesame Street" stint with son Dakota Starblanket Wolfchild, and now leads the Cradleboard Teaching Project, using multimedia to create accurate core curriculum based in Native American cultural perspectives.

Lila Downs, best known for her supporting role and musical contributions to the film "Frida," has spent the last decade exploring a bracing fusion of Mexican folkloric music (her mother is Mixteca Indian) and American jazz, pop and blues.

Rita Coolidge and Mary Youngblood. Coolidge moved from in-demand session singer to minor stardom in the '70s. Her mid-'90s recordings signaled a renewed interest in her Cherokee heritage, and Coolidge teamed up with her sister, Priscilla, and niece, Laura Satterfield, to form the vocal trio Walela to further explore those roots. Coolidge will perform with Youngblood (Aleut-Seminole), whose award-winning flute playing is a soothing blend of New Age, classical and folk.

Indigenous, a Nakota Sioux family quartet that favors tight, blues-infused rock and features prodigious singer-guitarist Mato Nanji, who is evoking comparisons to Stevie Ray Vaughan.

• On Sept. 25, the showcase evening concert at 5:30 will feature:

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