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.
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:
Keith Secola (Anishinabe), whose Wild Band of Indians plays what has been dubbed "AlterNative," meshing rock, folk and blues with Native American flute and powwow drums in a working-class sound exemplified by such socially conscious songs as the anthemic "NDN Cars" and "Kokopelli Blues," which criticizes exploitative and inappropriate use of Indian traditions.
Star Nayea, who has toured and recorded with Robbie Robertson and Robert Mirabal, is a rock and soul singer known as the "Little Woman With the Big Voice."
The Pappy Johns Band with Murray Porter (Iroquois from Six Nations Reserve, Ontario), playing a mix of rock and blues, are regulars on "Buffalo Tracks," the first variety show on Canada's Aboriginal Peoples Television Network.
* And on Sept. 26, there will be Sunday morning hymn singing from 10 to noon featuring the Cherokee National Youth Choir, Oneida Hymn Singers, the Gospel Light Echoes (Navajo) and Victoria Huggins (Lumbee). The Cherokee Youth Choir and Oneida Hymn Singers can be heard on the just-released Smithsonian Folkways recording "Beautiful Beyond: Christian Hymns in Native Languages."
* Musical performances will take place daily from 10 to 5 in three locations: The Harvest Stage (at Sixth Street), the Potomac Stage (at Seventh Street) and the Four Directions Stage (at Third Street). There will also be the Dance Circle stage (at Fourth Street) and the Raven Stage for storytelling (at mid-Mall). In addition, there will be hourly discussions with regalia and instrument makers at the Workshop Stage, daily from 11 to 5. All events are free and open to the public.
There will be plentiful examples of both traditional and contemporary native music from the mainland, Alaska and Hawaii, as well as a hemispheric perspective that includes the Bannaba Project (Kuna from Panama), Andes Manta (Chibcha and Mestizo from Ecuador), a group of Suya from the upper Xingu region of Brazil, and Canada's War Party and Pappy Johns Band.
According to W. Richard West Jr. (Southern Cheyenne), director of the National Museum of the American Indian, that Arctic-to-the tip-of-South America overview is a reflection of the museum's general approach as well as the fact that, of its collection of 800,000 objects, 30 percent originate from south of the Rio Grande in Central and Latin America. West notes that "the political borders that now separate north from south -- to separate the United States from Canada and Mexico -- are not necessarily our cultural borders. You will find sitting on each side of our borders with Canada and Mexico exactly the same people culturally."
West adds that such inclusion also reflects "that this is very much an international institute of living culture, not just about an ethnographic past. It's about the 35 million people throughout this hemisphere who still are indigenous and live accordingly: Only 2 million are here in the United States, and another million are in Canada, with 30 million-plus in Central and South America."
Since the '70s, native pottery, textiles, painting and silversmithery have achieved national and global renown, but there has yet to be a corollary for Native American music. One possible reason, according to West, is that archaeologists and anthropologists "got to Indian communities faster than the ethnomusicologists. Music is perceived of as intangible culture, as contrasted with tangible, material culture objects like pots or baskets. And yet the two are inseparable in Indian life. All of our ceremonies revolve around physical objects in which we have invested much meaning, and I cannot think of an important ceremony where objects may be used that also doesn't have music going with it."
This is a far cry from the latter part of the 1800s and well into the 1900s, when Indians were pressured to give up their musical and religious traditions and their languages to assimilate into European American culture. In 1904, the government formalized such restrictions via Article 4 of the Regulations of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which prohibited traditional ceremonial music and dance. The policy stood until 1934.
Perhaps the most visible, and popular, cultural events are powwows, public get-togethers famous for their pageantry of colors and contests between various drum and dance troupes. Their roots go back to the 1800s as a coming together of Plains nations separated during long winters. According to West, "tribes, sometimes ardent enemies, left behind those kinds of separations and enmities to socialize and dance to music together."
But powwows as we know them today were born in the early '30s after cultural restrictions were removed, and ever since they've been growing, constantly changing and adapting to modern ways while looking to retain their cultural roots. There will be no formal powwows in the opening ceremonies, but the key elements of songs, stories and steps will be well represented at the various performance stages.