Saturday, April 25, 2015

Navajo Songs

Earlier this month, a trip to New Mexico and Colorado included an excursion to the Four Corners Monument.  While there was plenty of the obligatory posing for photos with hands and feet in each of the states of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, there was also a chance to browse the stands of Indian artists and purchase some nice examples.

However, because the monument is on the sovereign lands of the Navajo people, it was also a reminder of one of the more interesting recordings issued in 1992 by the Smithsonian Folkways label, Navajo Songs.  This album, in a cassette version, was first purchased by this blogger shortly after its release and had a big impression then.  A repurchase on CD a couple of years ago reinforced that perception.

This is because these recordings, made by Laura Boulton in 1933 and 1940, are about as close as we can get to authentic tribal music before the introduction of "modern" instrumentation and, as one critic noted, before associations with "cheesy new age music" became standard!

There are fourteen tracks on this album, with the first half-dozen coming from the Yeibichei ritual ceremony that, the detailed and highly informative liners observe, involve "groups of about a dozen masked dancers who impersonate male and female deities . . ." and are composed of "chanting, sandpainting ritual, prayers, and prayer offerings."  Dancers use gourd rattles and sing in hauntingly beautiful, energetic and powerful ways.

There are also two songs that were performed to accompany corn grinding, one purely with vocals and the other with the accompaniment of someone beating rhythms on an overturned basket.  Notably, the singers were men who performed to make the hard work of grinding more palatable for the women who did these tasks.

Another set of four songs are from the Enemyway ceremony and deals with songs that involve combating the influence of souls of dead enemy fighters, such as the Pueblo Indians of Taos, New Mexico, east of Navajoland. or monsters who were affecting human lives.  Interestingly, modern versions have dealt with the problems Navajo soldiers had in the American armed forces or have been exposed to non-Navajo spirits.

There are two collections of sway songs, with percussive accompaniment on water drums and water-filled clay pots, and are so named because the performers swayed from side to side while singing.

These are followed by two groupings of circle dance songs, performed to chase out bad spirits and there is an element which mimics the return of a chief who had attacked Taos and then shared the booty he confiscated and shared it with the women at home.  The singing is followed by a statement about how performers shared money with their dancing partners in recollection of the historic return from battle.  All of the above were recorded in the 1940 sessions.

Finally, the remaining pieces accompany the moccasin game, an ancient gambling pastime, in which participants sing songs like those on this recording to accompany the game.  This involved having a quartet of moccasins on the floor of a hogan between two teams.  One team covers the shoes while a member places a stone or ball in one of them and the other team has to guess in which shoe the object is located.  There were hundreds of songs that were performed during the games, ten of which are provided on the disc.  The moccasin songs here came from the 1933 sessions.

Navajo Music is not just a valuable historical document of Indian singing and performance, but also reflects the fact that most music by our ancestors was based on everyday activities concerning religious and spiritual practice, work, and play.  Music was more directly connected with daily events and rituals, not as abstracted as it is for many societies today.  Laura Boulton is to be remembered for her preservation of these recordings from 75 and 80 years ago and Smithsonian Folkways thanked for its curating of this and other remarkable recordings.

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