Keeping the Music Alive...I often wish that I could be transported back into time. My elders say that there were songs everywhere! For every moment of the day. When you got up, prepared your food, rode your horses, planted your fields... The air must have always been full of the songs of my people. And still today the singing tradition is carried on in the hearts and minds of singers all over North America. Young and old, men and women, songcarriers, taking them into the next millennium.
From Cipriano Garcia of the San Juan Pueblo who composes a new set of Turtle Dance songs to be sung at the time of the winter solstice, to Roger Nez living for the past 15 years in Los Angeles, California, and to Floyd Rider master singer of the Blackfeet Nation of Browning MT. Let me tell you a little about these singers.
Cip Garcia is one of the master singers of the Rio Grande River culture. He lives just north of Espanola, NM in the Pueblo of San Juan. He has taken the role of the Tewa grandfather of my children, Kinji, Andrew, and Kyla whose mother is from this pueblo. When my children were just babies, we took them to the pueblo to receive their names from this great man. He is full of songs...spend some time with him and he hums, he whispers, he sings his songs. His voice is low and powerful in the style of the Rio Grande singers, and when he starts a song, he drives it and his fellow singers like a well tuned car.
Every year he composes many new songs for the dances to be held in the plaza square and for the youth dance clubs of the area. Some of the most beautiful being the Turtle Dances during the "Indian Christmas" time of the winter solstice. I am sad to no longer be able to visit with him as I once did, but he is a master singer and his songs will always be heard in the Rio Grande's journey...
(insert) 5/24/96; 10pm I was deeply saddened by the news tonight that my dear uncle Cip Garcia passed away today. The world has lost a master singer. I miss him already. He will be buried in the old ways of his San Juan people who loved and honored him so much. Who will pour the water for the new babies and utter their new names this winter??? We thank you Cip for all the love, kindness and leadership that you gave, the wonderful songs that you caught to uplift your people will go down in history as some of the most beautiful in the world. My life and music has been enriched by having known you.
No doubt Cip is sitting with all the Holy People and talking and joking with the great singers of days before. All the kachinas are each asking him to sing a verse or two..."remember that song you sang for us back in '73? We really liked that one, sing it again, for us please?" ah hah hah, heh, heh heh eh... A genuine kachina jukebox!!
The kachinas will dance to some of their favorite songs and we will mourn our loss of a great singer and spiritual elder...(insert)
Roger Nez, is my mentor, a Navajo union card holding welder who works in Los Angeles,he is teaching me the old traditional Dine' songs. I met Roger when I moved to LA 3 year sago. He knew me from his previous relationship with my old singing buddy, Art Cleveland,who had lived in that area for a few years and taught Roger some of my White Eagle songs.
Roger and I soon became close like brothers and he would come by my house to eat and visit. While there he would tell the old stories... and then sing some of the most beautiful navajo traditional songs that I have ever heard. Songs of the turquoise horses, the Four sacred Mountains, Monster Slayer, and the Old Age Beauty Trail. It didn't take long for me to realize that he was rich with song. I asked him where did he learn so much of this ageless and treasured music of our People. As a young boy, he said he was very close to his maternal grandfather who was a medicine singer. It was he that had taught him these wonderful songs as they walked and worked at home on the rez. How did you keep them in your mind here in the city, I asked??
When I first came to LA he said, I had no trade, and no training. I entered a small college welding school and had to live very simply to survive. I lived on top of this building and no one knew I was there, when it would become dark outside I would crawl up to the top of the roof to sleep.In the morning I would awaken, climb down before anyone would be out on the streets and eat breakfast at the local mission, catch the bus, and attend classes. In the late afternoon I would ride the bus back and eat supper again at the mission, before making my way up to the roof again for the night. Up on top, he said there was a huge billboard under which he slept. It's bright lights lit up my books for me to study, he said, and I sang the songs my grandfather taught me. One after the other, as carefully as I could, not to miss a single part. Roger said he was told they would protect him, and keep his mind clear if he kept singing them. So I sang them, all of them, over and over... And they still live in him. I asked Roger to be my teacher and he graciously accepted. One teaching he passed on to me from his grandfather was this:
He said, people grow old, their bodies falter, and some day they return to Mother Earth. But when we sing these songs they are just like they were yesterday and 100 years before. These songs never grow old as long as there is someone to sing them. As long as therein someone to sing them they will be as fresh and alive as ever... Thanks Roger for your songs, your grandfather's songs live on...
There was a singing group that traveled through the southwest region of Colorado during the late 70's, the Two Medicine Lake Singers. They were a group of men and women in their early twenties it seemed and they had some beautiful songs. Songs that were very unique and of a style all there own. It was years later during the mid-80's that I traveled to Browning Indian Days in Browning, MT for their annual pow-wow. We set up our White Eagle drum and sang our hearts out. I noticed a drum near us and recognized the name, Two Medicine lake. I watched them and noticed there were an old man and woman and a couple of other singers singing these beautiful songs. I was sitting by my drum and happened to look over toward them when the old singer motioned for me to come over. I walked over and he asked me, "Do you sing your own songs?" I said yes, and he said he figured so since he never heard them before. He complemented me on them and I asked about the young singers I had seen years before in Colorado. He said they were his sons and nephews who had gone out on the pow-wow trail that year. I told him I thought they had real pretty songs and he told me that they were his.
I had finally found the source of this beautiful music that had touched me years before. I asked him his name and he said, Floyd Rider, I was to find out years later that this master singer has composed many, many beautiful songs for the people. We sat there in the hot afternoon sun at his drum and we talked of catching songs. How did he catch his songs,I asked? Well, he said that the best songs he catches when he tends his cattle there on the Blackfeet reservation. "When I drive out to feed or check on my cows, I roll down the window just a little bit, just enough for the wind to come through, and I listen for songs..." "As the wind comes through the window I hear songs in it, and I catch them. I carry around a tape player and when I catch them I record them right away or else I forget them" Not just a master singer but a master songcatcher.
Of all that I have learned as a singer, this is one of the most important. That of song-catching. Songs are not composed so to speak, songs are given to us by the Universe. It could be an event, an animal, a plant, a spirit, a place, a memory, a child's laugh, a whistling wind... It creates a deep attitude of humility, that as a singer/songcatcher you are part of something much bigger and important than being a good performer. Some singers have told me that it's foolhardy to think that we "compose" songs, after all the Creator already knows the mall. We are lucky enough to catch them to give life and hope to the people. Much of the Western artistic tradition is about self-expression, in it's totality, open the bounds of your mind and really let yourself go to express the depths of your being.
This is different, the goal is not self-expression, but the reception of Music from a source outside yourself. The purposes; to enliven all living things, make the people dance, to heal grieving hearts, to lift the people up through the hard times. To receive guidance for our lives and sustenance for anyone who needs it. There are songs and messages of joy, hope, life, perserverance, beauty, harmony and community all around us... every moment.Life-Giver makes them available for us to hear and catch. Go on, go out and catch a song...
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