Native American Perspectives in Music – Post #1 (2 of 2)

(This post is continued from last week)


Tara Browner’s, Music of the First Nations, is a collection of case studies by nine authors. One key point in the introduction describes the increasing difficulty in studying Native American music since the mid-1970’s because of Native American antipathy towards ethnomusicologists due to copyright and ownership disputes. Browner mentions that contemporary ethnomusicologists are learning to cope with legal, ethical and cultural issues. Differences in methodology, field methods and outlook have been developed with the research being more community based and oriented with “service to Native peoples as a primary goal” (Browner 2009: 2). In addition, ethnomusicologists are trained in the ethics and infringement of intellectual property rights. Lastly, Native Americans themselves are pro active in the direction and use of research in their communities.

In the introduction, Browner states the theoretical perspective used in each essay. As this author is learning the varieties of theoretical approaches employed by ethnomusicologists, the references Browner provides on the approaches of each essay (2-3) is helpful. Given that this book is recently published, the contemporary issues and questions that each writer addresses is intriguing and timely.   For example, in Chapter 1, Paula Conlon’s fieldwork explores how the traditional musical style of drum-dance songs continues to maintain links with the past. The contemporary culture is reflected in the interaction of the composer and teacher of the song (a man) with his wife, who in turn teaches the song to other women in the community for public performance. Although the composer does not sing in public performance, he may cry out from time to time while drum dancing. With regard to the known authorship of the 147 drum-dance songs, only four are attributed to female composers (9). Obviously gender issues exist that contribute to this disparity. This author believes that Conlon could have included more insight specific to contemporary gender issues in this community that foster this imbalance. Conlon also explains that some song text is common to different composers and although the character of each song is personal, anyone may sing someone else’s song without seeking permission as long as the original creator of the song is publicly acknowledged (9).  Furthermore, competition amongst singers is another way to engage the community and foster more intense participation throughout the community. This author admires this form of respect and is interested to hear a battle of songs that takes place between song cousins. The idea of camaraderie within a competition is heartening and this author is curious about the humorous barbs of truths that are non-abusively exchanged as a way to engage the community and endear one to all. In the transcription of the song “I’m So Happy”, one observes the rising and falling of the melodic contours and pitches (15). These characteristics are found  in much Native American music this author has heard. Additionally, in learning the details of the coexisting multiple tempos, this author wonders what influences the choice of tempo, for both the drummer and dancer (16). This subject is part of my own research for new compositional approaches, which will be written about in future essays.

As a way to link with and preserve their past, contemporary Inuit musicians have recontextualized traditional music in modern settings through rock bands and boogie-woogie (18). Despite the available personal and historical resources, Conlon let’s us know that one cannot know how the Inuit composed their songs in the past. Although that lack of information seems unfortunate, this author hopes that contemporary fieldwork strives to unearth, learn and document this phenomena. We also learn that personal relationships with others and one’s environment influence personal expressions.  In Chapter 2, “Musical Expressions of the Dene”, Lucy Lafferty (Native specialist of the Dogrib Nation) and Elaine Keillor explain how “land songs” and “love songs” “reinforce a Dene’s personal relationship within the terrain of their Denendeh homeland, and one’s personal relationship within the community” (21). The Dene refer to prophets as “esteemed elders” who were known for their medicinal and leadership prowess (24). Prophets could be male or female and from childhood were trained by listening to:

“stories of animal people and culture heroes… and taught to pray (by) singing the songs of the prophets who had come before them, until they were ready to seek a vision of their own” (24).

For the Dene, the singing of “love songs” and “land songs” exemplifies their relationship to their core values of ever expanding knowledge and usage of “language and art”. Recordings of elders singing these songs is now incorporated into the curriculum at local schools thus giving back to their community, helping others to learn, and keeping traditions alive while retaining identity. The Dene elders believe the songs themselves hold the key to all of the many values that are closely tied to the culture’s dependence on the terrain. Even as generations and the terrain evolve, historical perspectives and traditions are nourished and advanced through contemporary practices and uses of music.

There are a variety of similarities and differences that exist in the many different kinds of Native American music. Many of these are illuminated on the 26-song CD that is packaged with Diamond’s book. Variations may be found in different languages, histories and cultural traditions. The human voice is featured on every song except “The Mystery Step Dancer”. Diamond notes, “indigenous knowledge is bound to the knowledge of place and environment” (Diamond 2008: 26). Haudenosaunee arts and culture specialist and transnational singer, Sadie Buck, mentioned that she “sings in cooperation with the environment” (29).

Sadie Buck

Sadie Buck

Several tracks on the accompanying CD include environmental sounds of specific localities including “An Arctic Lullaby”, “Life Force”, and “Seagull/Naujaq”. Buck mentioned that vocal timbres might be mapped…onto the different First Nations of North America” and that “you can hear the sound of the place in the voices from there” (29). Timbral contrast is demonstrated on the vocals of “Qiarvaaq”, “Sweet Tobacco” and “Qimmruluapik”. Traditional instruments such as rattles and drums may be heard on “Pine Cone Dance”, “Rattle Songs (1-3)”, “My Way”, “1492 Who Found Who?”, “Eskanye Set”, “Traveling Song” and “Mi’kmaq Ko’jua”. Musical practices that have developed in response to social circumstances such as colonialism are heard on “1492 Who Found Who?”, “A Postcolonial Tale”, and “Museum Cases”.  Once finished with this reading and listening, this author wondered, “What critical judgments do Native Americans have about their own music that reveals their criteria for the success or goodness of a composition or a performance?” Inuit throat singer, teacher, and president of the Throat Singers Association, Karin Kettler, mentions, “what makes a good throat singer is someone who can last a long time, make a variety of sounds, and pick up the tempo” (52).

Karin and Kathy Kettler, the Canadian throat-singing sisters who together are known as Nukariik, carry on the traditions of the elders from their mothers' village in Kangiqsualujjuaq, Nunavik, which is located in northern Quebec.

Karin and Kathy Kettler, the Canadian throat-singing sisters who together are known as Nukariik, carry on the traditions of the elders from their mothers’ village in Kangiqsualujjuaq, Nunavik, which is located in northern Quebec.

This type of competition, as well as the documentation of a rubric of musical perspectives, are further examples of how contemporary musical expression, and it’s use in culturally diverse Native American communities, is multi-dimensional and ongoing.

Native American sound and song has a variety of contrasting hybrid processes including communal and personal expression, spontaneous and calculated events, complex and simple rhythms, simultaneous equal tempos and simultaneous independent tempos, ornate and non-ornamented melodies, and steady pulse and tempo modulation.  These processes derive from context, content, function and meaning.  We see that the historical and contemporary practice and use of music in culturally diverse Native American communities is rich and ongoing as these processes are applied to the implementation of TIK, the varieties of experience that sound and song traditions are encountered, and with vibrant contemporary cultural expressions of indigenous modernity.


[1] Inuit poet, circa 1929 (Browner 2009: 18)

[2] I’d like to compare and contrast this point with having recently seen Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, which is an oral performance of a European narrative that incorporates song. This play involves a courtship amongst eight people where by the end of the play the four women separate from their male suitors for a year. At the end of the play, many passages and songs are devoted to arguing the ethical merits of this separation. This European ethical proselytizing stands in stark contrast with some Native American legends that may encourage individuals to come to their own conclusions.

Works Referenced

“Aesthetic Realism: A New Foundation for Interdisciplinary Musicology”, Perey-Anthropology, Web. 11 Nov. 2011.


Browner, Tara (editor). 2009. Music of The First Nations – Tradition and Innovation in Native North America. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Diamond, Beverley. 2008. Native American Music in Eastern North America:  Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture. New York: Oxford University Press.

Love’s Labour’s Lost. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Amaranth Press, 1985. 148-173.

Scupin, Raymond and Christopher R. DeCorse. Anthropology: A Global Perspective (6th Edition). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2008.



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Bruce Eisenbeil is a composer, improviser, and guitar instrumentalist who has dedicated his life to the advancement of modern guitar techniques through the growth and evolution of modern composition and improvised music. He has twelve CD’s released on a variety of labels including: ESP, New Atlantis, Pogus, Nemu, Konnex, Cadence, C.I.M.P and Nine Winds. Eisenbeil has performed and recorded with some of the best musicians throughout the USA, Canada, Japan, Switzerland, France, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Brasil, and at many festivals. Eisenbeil has been living in New York City since 1995. In addition to his musical developments, Eisenbeil is trained in advanced mathematics, physics – general relativity and quantum mechanics, organic chemistry, computer languages, electrical engineering, acoustics, art history, philosophy and psychology. He has worked as an electrical technician, mechanical draftsman, auto mechanic and in construction. Although Eisenbeil was born in Chicago, he grew up in Plainfield, NJ which is where he began playing the guitar when he was 4 years old. He has been performing professionally since he was 15. Mostly self-taught, he studied with a few great teachers including Joe Pass, Howard Roberts, Joe Diorio, and Dennis Sandole – teacher of John Coltrane and Pat Martino. Despite the fact that Eisenbeil is singular artist with his own personal sound, those critics who write comparatively associate him not only with guitarists such as Wes Montgomery, Django Reinhardt, Grant Green, Billy Bauer, Derek Bailey, Sarnie Garrett, Sonny Sharrock, Curtis Mayfield, John McLaughlin, Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck but also with saxophonists John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman and pianists McCoy Tyner and Cecil Taylor. Eisenbeil’s ensemble writing has garnered a lot of attention for his unique counterpoint, textures, and sound masses. Because his work is tough to describe, critics have associated Eisenbeil’s writing with that of Miles Davis, Don Cherry, Brian Ferneyhough, Sun Ra, Anthony Braxton, the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the Revolutionary Ensemble. Eisenbeil has performed and/or recorded with some of the best musicians in the world including: Cecil Taylor, Katsuyuki Itakura, David Fox, David Murray, Evan Parker, Rob Brown, Ellery Eskelin, Aaron Ali Shaikh, Jimmy Stewert, Biggi Vinkeloe, Steve Swell, David Taylor, Karl Berger, Perry Robinson, Michael Manring, Alex Blake, William Parker, Kent Carter, Lisle Ellis, Wilbo Wright, Hill Greene, Tom Abbs, Peter Evans, Nate Wooley, Tom Hamilton, Charles Cohen, SKFL, Milford Graves, Badal Roy, Andrew Cyrille, Edgar Bateman, Nasheet Waits, Jay Rosen, William Hooker, Lou Grassi, Ian Ash, Lukas Ligeti, Shiro Onuma, Michael Lopez, and many others. In the 1980’s he worked with Jeff Buckley, Paul Gilbert and in R&B bands. His trio, TOTEM>, includes Tom Blancarte and Andrew Drury.