Heartbeat: Voices of First Nations Women

Various Artists
Heartbeat: Voices of First Nations Women
Smithsonian/Folkways SF CD 40415
4 rating
review by Art Menius

The music and dance of the First Nations of Indian America has long been stereotyped as male-dominated forms, whether the protest songs of Pete LaFarge, tribal ceremonial music, or the new age flute work of Carlos Nakai. An exceptional program at this year’s Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife celebrated and explored the female side of Native American music and dance. Heartbeat: Voices of First Nations Women collects the best traditional and contemporary music by the artists, mostly unknown outside their own communities, from that unprecedented event.

The breadth of Heartbeat, assembled by the Smithsonian’s Howard Bass and Rayna Green, proves it strongest suit. Buffy Sainte-Marie, the Cree who has come closest to pop stardom of any First Nations woman, appears, closing the 70 minute disc with a rocking original “Starwalker.” Powwow sounds and Northern Plains rhythms power the very modern song. She has blazed a trail for a new generation of contemporary female singer-songwriters, represented here by Geraldine Barney. Barney’s ode to reservation alienation, “Glitter Nights,” provides the CD’s most powerful track.

Other younger women of a modern bent have formed vocal groups. Ulali shines brightly with an excellent song about North Carolina, “Going Home,” that melds blues, gospel, and Native American ideas. The Sweethearts of Navajoland depend on traditional skip dance forms as a basis for original lyrics on “One Woman’s Man.”

The Tewa Indian Women’s Choir from New Mexico’s San Juan Pueblo, on the other hand, use the church as venue for songs, such as “Ange’in” and “Holy, Holy, Holy,” merging Pueblo and Catholic traditions. Ontario’s Six Nations Women Singers faithfully render material from the longhouse tradition.

Revivalist individual artists and duets on Heartbeat likewise sample diverse styles and traditions. Lillian Ranier has mastered the Apache flute music of her father, while Nancy Richardson absorbed story songs of the lizard, fawn, and panther from Karuk elder Helen Tom. Betty Mae Jumper relates Seminole stories including “The Mice and the Bad Angel.”

All this variety can confuse, but that can hardly overshadow the riches of this sampling of First Nations female music, song, and story today. Nor should the historical significance of Heartbeat: The Voices of First Nations Women obscure its dazzling, substantial music, drawn mostly from field recordings and Smithsonian concerts, mixed with a few commercial recordings. Whether recently penned or handed down through the decades, these sounds are alive.