BY FRED MILLS
Though I, like many music fans, was tangentially aware of indigenous Native American music as far back as the early ‘70s when I discovered the psychedelia of New Mexico’s Xit (whose ’72 classic Plight Of the Redman was released, improbably enough, by Motown), it’s likely that for the most part our basic frame of reference began with the folkrock of Buffy Sainte-Marie (who charted several times during the decade and beyond) and ended with the mainstream rock of Redbone (1974 hit “Come And Get Your Love”). Which is to say, not much of a frame of reference at all. Many years later, such artists as John Trudell and Burning Sky, and certainly the tireless efforts of labels like Arizona’s Canyon, would bring Native music of all genres – from country, folk and rock to chicken scratch, pow-wow music and new age flute — to the attention of a wider audience. But it’s still a good bet that those sounds continue to fly under the radar of average folks.
Native North America Vol. One aims, if not to fully rectify that situation, to at least acknowledge some of the artists who have surfaced over the years, in varying degrees of prominence, and to offer a resource/starting point for fans who want to delve deeper. Once again the ever-diligent archivists at Light In The Attic have enlisted the crate-digging talents of deejay/journalist Kevin “Sipreano” Howes (Jamaica To Toronto and Motown’s Mowest Story 1971-73) to compile an overview collection that tells a compelling musical story. Subtitled Aboriginal Folk, Rock, and Country 1966-1985, this eye-poppingly gorgeous 3-LP set (or 2-CD, should silver disc be your choice of format) presents exactly that, and with such attention to detail that a college level course could be designed using it as the core source material.
With 34 tracks to consider here, no review could do the anthology justice. Nor can I adequately delve into the lyrical content; suffice to say that matters of the heart, of the environment and of the Native American political milieu are prominent, with many of the topics touched upon still relevant today. Just to single out a handful of tunes:
*Quebec’s Willy Mitchell, who is represented three times, in particular his “Kill’n Your Mind,” a harrowing, minor-chord, Jackson Browne-esque rocker cut live with his backing group Desert River Band.
*Brian Davey, from Ontario, with a harp-and-guitar powered “Dreams of Ways” that’s bluesy and folky all at once, his high, keening voice a memorable instrument in its own right.
Cree singer and actor Morley Loon, of Quebec, whose “N’Doheeno” incorporates traditional percussion motifs to give the tune an almost Dylan-in-drum-circle vibe.
*Philippe McKenzie, singing (like Loon, who originally inspired him) in his native language Innu-aiman), both solo and with a trio, Groupe Folklorique Montagnais; his “Mistashipu” similarly brings a Dylan influence to a traditional guitar, drum and shaker arrangement.
*The Chieftones, known sometimes as “Canada’s All Indian Band,” who hailed from Alberta and managed to achieve a degree of success in the States in the mid ‘60s, probably due as much to the novelty of their onstage costumes (headbands, feathers and other “Indian” trappings aimed at appealing to non-Native audiences) as for their serviceable brand of garage rock on “I Shouldn’t Have Did What I Done,” a track that wouldn’t have been out of place on a Nuggets type compilation.
*Ontario’s Lawrence Martin, who with the twangy “I Got My Music” sounds a bit like Clarence White-era Byrds in all their country-rockin’ glory; this guy would’ve been embraced by the No Depression crowd had it been around in ’81 when the song was cut.
*Willie Dunn, a songwriter, filmmaker, playwright, activist and politician from Montreal who opens and closes the record, and who passed away last year while Howes was still working on the project. His hauntingly intense, 5 ½ minute pow-wow chant “Son Of The Sun” is perhaps the most powerful number on the album.
Equally important are the rare photos and exhaustive liner notes/track annotations that compiler Howes — who is Canadian — has done for Native North America’s booklet, which clocks in at an impressive 60 pages for the vinyl version. Each artist was extensively researched, with many of those who were still living contacted directly by Howes, ultimately yielding multi-page mini-bios for them and not just the one- or two-paragraph blurbs typical for most compilations. The lyrics to each song are also provided, including those sung in Native languages. Photo credits are dutifully listed, and each original LP, EP or 7” sleeve and label art is also reproduced wherever possible, no small feat considering how many of the releases were private pressings in the first place. The LPs are housed in thick tip-on sleeves with a hardback outer box (the CD version, likewise, is designed like a bound hardback book). All in all, a true work of art.
That, and as clearly a labor of love as they come,. For all the reasons outlined above, and also for the prevailing vibe of respect and honor for these artists — most of them obscure, but none of them unworthy — that comes through loud and clear. Encore, please.
DOWNLOAD: “Son Of the Sun” (Willie Dunn); “I Shouldn’t Have Did What I Done” (The Chieftones); “Kill’n Your Mind” (Willy Mitchell and Desert River Band)