Renegade Radio’s Dirty Words & Thoughts About Music (Aug. 2010)

By Brian Wright-McLeod
News From Indian Country August 2010

Aztlan UnderGround


Formed in the early 1990s, AUG stormed onto the scene with a mini-cassette entitled 1492…F__ That! Their renegade response to the 500th anniversary of the Columbus expedition to the western hemisphere catapulted the group to underground cult status. Their searing metal/rap armor infused with indigenous music, epic lyrics and a true revolutionary consciousness have come to define their style.

Their latest self-titled disc is their best album to date. Most of the eleven tracks clock in around the eight-minute mark - barely enough time to encapsulate the fullness of their tantalizing sound.

My cat sat and listened intently to the entire album, then got up and went to eat. That’s just the opinion of a fussy feline. But does music hath charms to soothe the savage breast? Well, the music of AUG seems to possess the power to entrance and awaken the consciousness of all who listen. Victor Hugo said it best: “Music expresses that which cannot be said. And on which it is impossible to be silent.”

Aztlan UnderGround is Yaotl, vocals;  Ignacio Caxo Lopez, drums; Joe Peps Garza, bass/Native percussion/flutes; Alonzo Beas, guitars/keyboards/ sequencing/Native percussion.

Eagle & Hawk: The Great Unknown


eagle_hawk_great_unknown.jpgPerhaps, one of the most perfect albums to be released by Winnipeg-based veterans of Native rock, Eagle and Hawk’s The Great Unknown is nothing less than a joy ride of musical happiness. The opening track - a poppy love song gleefully titled “What if We Could,” possesses all the lyrical and musical hooks for a decent radio single. The number is also a perfect lead-in to a carefully constructed album. Joining the songwriting team of Vince Fontaine and Jay Bodner, is James Creasy who provides orchestral arrangements on “Watersong” and Ray “Coco” Stevenson, a traditional singer. Stevenson also appears on the track “Dance” to add an electric powwow ambience complete with chanting, panting, drumming and strumming. Guest vocalist White Dove sings on the carnivalesque number “The Great Unknown.”

“Buffalo Song” is one of those gratuitous acid-flash-back tracks that every good rock band has on its song list – and they wouldn’t be a rock band if they didn’t. The Great Unknown spans eight well written and expertly played pop songs that are haunted by a slight mist of traditional roots strategically positioned throughout the album.

Jay Bodner, guitar/lead vocals; Vince Fontaine, guitar/vocals; Lawrence Mulhall, bass/vocals; Marty Chapman, drums; Rachel, Richard and Ruth Moody, backup vocals; White Dove, lead vocals; Ray “Coco” Stevenson, traditional singing; James Creasy orchestral arrangements; Chris Webe, additional production.

Various Artists: Heartbeats, A CD Benefit for Warriors Against Violence


warriors_against_violence.jpgHeartbeats contains a superb blend of swanky club music, tribal beats and traditional nuances daringly positioned amid a flavorful banquet of jazz, R&B, dub versions and hip-hop numbers. The album features the talents of Noreen Braun, Ostwelve, Russell Wallace, Dreamspeak, Kalan Wi, Tzo’kam, and Alta, an eclectic lineup that spans many contemporary genres.

The album opens with “Gathering” by Tzo’kam – a lively club mix that blends beats, chants and acoustic guitar lines; although this is certainly not the first hybrid of such sounds. Wallace creates a tasteful rhythmic trance piece that sets the tone for the project as Noreen Braun’s “Intimate Hour” takes up the hip-hop torch with melodic grace. The song acts as a perfect bridge to introduce the ensuing tracks on the fourteen-song CD. Kalan Wi’s “Lil’wat Soul Remix” exudes gospel flavors with tinges of funk entwined with a traditional West Coast dialect. A reality check rears its hip-hop head with Ostwelve’s “On My Mind,” as Alta follows with an electro-funk remix “What Shall I Sell?”  And so it goes.

The compilation was produced by veteran musician Russell Wallace, whose 1991 Dreamspeak project was his beat/dub response to the Oka crisis of 1990. The jazzy eight-minute remix of “Indian Summer,” replete with original horn-lines and poppy bass riffs, is a musical resurrection that sounds just as fresh and relevant today as when it was first released. More recently, Wallace has produced and performed with his family group known as Tzo’kam. Their musical specialty stems from the traditional songs of their ancestors spiced up with a contemporary twist with Wallace writing much of the material.

The infectious rhythm and sublime production leave no gaps throughout the compilation. Overall, the project is a marvelous representation of the current West Coast contemporary music scene at its best.

The benefit CD project was created to augment the efforts of the Vancouver, British Columbia-based organization Violence Against Women. Highly recommended!

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Michael Bucher: Bitter Tears Sacred Ground


michael_bucher.jpgBitter Tears Sacred Ground: Honoring Johnny Cash, Floyd Westerman and Peter LaFarge is Michael Bucher’s collaboration with Joanne Shenandoah. The biggest disappointment was their censorship of the lyrics to Cash’s “Apache Tears.” The original line in Cash’s song “Apache Tears” was: “And who saw the young squaw” – but then Bucher changed it to something that sounded vaguely like “young flaw.” Or was it “young blonde” – I couldn’t make it out, and perhaps that was intentional. But why change it? The original verse was meant to be bitter because that was the whole point! The editing occurs again in LaFarge’s “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.” The original line goes: “…a proud and noble band, who farmed the Phoenix Valley in Arizona land.” The Bucher version omits the word “land” and foregoes the rhyme within the stanza.

However, their take on Cash’s spoken word number “The Talking Leaves” is presented as close to the original version as anyone can muster. Floyd Westerman’s “They Didn’t Listen” is rendered as a drum song performed by Shenandoah and barely sounds anything like the original, wherein the melody practically disappears. And do we really need to hear Shenandoah’s ever-so-patriotic rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner?” I guess she doesn’t carry one of those Haudenosaunee passports.

Bucher’s “Sacred Ground” and Shenandoah’s “Treaty” balance out the tracking, keeping pace with the historic songwriters on the album.

Artists include Morris Tarbell, Michael Bucher, Joanne Shenandoah, guitars; John Buck, Sam Patterelli, bass; Curtis Waterman, harmonica; Ron Keck, percussion; Leah, Diane and Joanne Shenandoah, Michael Bucher, vocals.

Smith, Toppah & Landry: Rain in July


rain_in_july.jpgThe art of vocal harmony was introduced to Native people in North America around the early 16th century, predominantly through European missionaries. The integration of harmonized singing later found its way into certain ceremonial singing such as the peyote songs of the Native American Church in the early twentieth century.  Although the people already sang with open harmony in certain songs, the choral and close harmony of European singing is relatively new. Regardless of how many generations ago that harmonized singing was injected into Native music in certain areas, the span of existence of indigenous people and their music been much longer.

Far from resembling the traditional songs of the ancestors, this new genre of harmonized singing, based on traditional Native roots, continues to win fans the world over.

The vocal harmony songs on Rain in July are performed by three accomplished artists Alex E. Smith, Cheevers Toppah and Nitanis “Kit” Landry.

All members of this happy little trio share distinguished backgrounds in various forms of traditional and contemporary music. Alex E. Smith (Pawnee/Sauk & Fox) began singing in the Pawnee Baptist church choir and studied piano in his youth; he now specializes in preserving Pawnee tribal hymns.

Cheevers Toppah (Kiowa), from Oklahoma, was born into a family of traditional singers. With a strong background in southern style powwow singing, he also studied under professional choir directors for choral training.

Nitanis “Kit” Landry (Anishnabewe) is from Whitefish Bay, Ontario, Canada with a lifetime of powwow singing; she performs with family members and powwow drum groups including Bear Creek.

The ten-track album is not for the die-hard powwow fan or the hardcore traditional purist, but will no doubt be easily consumed by the New Age crowd or fans of easy listening music – tribal style.

As one would expect, the album is flush with slow melodic pieces of chanting and harmonized vocable styles. With the bulk of the material written by Smith and Toppah, one additional track created by Landry entitled “Could Be Mine” with English words and vocables is a reinterpretation of a powwow song. Other tracks, such as “Baby I Know,” stem from the 49er song style and round dance roots.

Additional numbers include Louie Gonnie’s “Swirling Smoke” with lyrics sung in the Dine language. Anthony Wakeman (Pottawatomi/Lakota) adds some flavorful Native flute riffs on the title track “Rain in July.”

The album is an auditory tapestry of choral harmonies enhanced by some sensational production that utilizes an abundance of echo effects throughout the album. But without the romantic stereotypes that typify much of this particular genre.

In the continuing development of this relatively new vocal genre, Rain in July is an exemplary album that displays a deep understanding on the part of the singers, of many traditional music forms.