Native American Music

by Kerry Dexter / Oct 04, 2008 /
Kerry Dexter's picture

Water drum and gourd rattle, classical guitar and cedar flute, music of the desert, the peyote church, and Johann Sebastian Bach all find a place in recent recordings by native American artists.

Chant is part of the musical life of many religions and churches. That’s so for members of the Native American Church, which began in Mexico in the days before Columbus, and seeks to understand God through the manifestation of the peyote plant, called Father Peyote. Chants and songs of healing, love, forgiveness, celebration, and the search for finding one’s way in life are part of the believers lives and of their services of worship. Kevin Yazzie, of the Dine/Navajo people, lives in Mesa, Arizona, and has been drawn to the music of the church since he was a child, and he first began composing original worship songs when he was thirteen. The music of the church includes songs sung at four points in the often day long worship services, and other music that varies from place to place and service to service. Many of the sets of chants here are structured around that four song plan, and there is also a set of songs -- the title set, Faith -- which came to Yazzie in a dream. Harmony and rhythm characterize these pieces, as do the unique and ever shifting notes of the water drum, and the beat of  gourd rattles. It=E 2s a music which readily evokes the turning of the day, and the landscapes of the southwestern United States.


Kevin Yazzie



So does the music R. Carlos Nakai offers on his latest recording, Talisman, although in a different way. Nakai is known as a master flute player :  he’s received eight Grammy nominations and numerous other awards over his twenty five years of recording. He is of Navajo and Ute heritage, and all those years ago he was studying the trumpet, when he accepted a gift of a traditional Native American flute and the challenge to see what he could do with it. For this latest recording, he returns to daylight and evening in the Arizona deserts and mountains he knows best for inspiration, and to solo and duo flute for the direct and clear way to share those inspirations. He alternates music for solo flute with music for two flutes on a journey from evening to morning, from sunrise to evening, through Cedar Breeze to Sunrise Prayer, from Coyote Calling to Wisdom’s Edge. It’s a quiet yet strong evocation  of the nature of the desert, the call of the mountains, and the ever changing and unchanging changing aspects of tradition.


R. Carlos Nakai


Gabriel Ayala takes a different approach to tradition: he’s a classical guitarist. Portraits is the name of his latest release, and a varied gallery it is, ranging from Spanish and Hispanic favorites including works by Albeniz, Sor, and Merlin to a Peter Maxwell Davies composition inspired by the Orkney Islands,  Leaving Stromn ess, to a dance by English Renaissance composer John Dowland, to a toccata and fugue by J.S. Bach, to the American folk song Go from my Window. With a clear sense of melody, phrasing, and touch, Ayala adds his own vision to these instrumental pieces and creates a natural connection among these at first disparate seeming works. Of the Yaqui people, Ayala also does traditional chanting and dance. Here, he shares his skills and ideas as one of a small group on Native American artists taking their gifts and perspectives into the realm of classical music.


Gabriel Ayala






Comments (2)

  • Dr. Jessie Voigts

    10 years 11 months ago

    Kerry - I'd not heard of any of these artists! Thanks for bringing them to my notice - will get their albums!


    Jessie Voigts


  • nonameharbor

    10 years 11 months ago


    I have enjoyed reading your article.  This music would be lovely listening while reading Louise Erdrich.

        "Take the adventure, heed the call, now ere the irrevocable moment passes!"

           ...The Wind In The Willows, Kenneth Grahame

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