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U.S. and Canada: Native American/First Nations Music

This week we begin our musical journey around the United States and Canada in earnest by traveling back to the earliest earliest earliest days to sing with the first human inhabitants of these lands.

Most traditional Native American/First Nations music – that which we'll call "traditional," meaning, in our context, music that originated, or is consistent with music that originated, long ago and has been passed down from generation to generation as a foundation of Native American culture –    features voices, percussion (drums and rattles) and the occasional flute, with very little other instrumentation. The lyrics of many Native American/First Nations songs are a combination of words from original languages and vocables, which are sounds that don't correspond to actual words in any language. Vocables--like "ho" or "ya" or "hey-na"--aren't just "nonsense syllables;" they intend to convey the given song's emotion, and maybe even effective at doing so than wordy lyrics that could distract the listener from appreciating the true passion of the song.  

Many Native American/First Nations songs begin slowly but increase in intensity and speed, with vocalists, percussionists and dancers (often all the same people) losing themselves more and more in the music at hand. Songs may be overtly spiritual in nature, used within tribes for the purposes of ritual, or meant to be shared in public performance. Public songs may celebrate the change in seasons or a successful harvest, express pride in the tribe, tell an important tale from the tribe's history or just connect the performers and community with the natural world.

Despite these similarities there is also substantial diversity among the musics of Native American/First Nations people. Over the centuries each tribe has developed its own style, starting with the basic common elements of Native American/First Nations music but adding their own melodic, rhythmic or even instrumental twists. 

This week in class we sing:

We sing "We Are Happy," a hello song from Uganda, to open every All Around This World class. This week we sing hello in Nłeʔkepmxcín, a language of the  Nlaxa’pamuk Nation, formerly known as the Thompson Rivers First Nation, of Canada's  Southwest: ʔéx kʷ n̓ ! (Can't pronounce it. Neither can I! But in class, we try.)

"Mayan Peace Song" is a melody that may well be from the Mayan Empire, one of the great pre-colonial empires that ruled the lands we now know as Mexico and Central America. (More.)

Thompson River” is a chant and melody from the Thompson Rivers First Nations of Southwestern Canada.  (More.)  

Mudhead Kachina” is a chant from the Hopi tribe of America's Southwest. (More.)  

Careless Love” is an early pre-blues and pre-jazz jazzy-blues song, Of course our version is from Guam, in Chamorro. (More.)  


To get ourselves singing, lets take a little tour of Native American/First Nations music, starting from the Southwest U.S. and moving on from there.

Pueblo: Hopi | the Taos Pueblo | Zuni
Athabaskan: Apache | Navajo | Navajo/Sioux | Navajo "peyote song,"

Shoshone | Painte/Shotone

Arapaho | Northern Cheyenne | Southern Cheyenne

Iroquois | Choctaw | Cherokee?

Sḵwxwú7mesh | Sechelt (Salish)

Inuit throat singing | Inuit drum dancing

-- the Porcupine Singers (revived traditional) | Keith Secola (country) | XIT (rock) | R. Carlos Nakai and Dawn Avery (Western classical). John Trudell (spoken word/rock)   



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