Review Summary: Powwow singers doing what they do best, sing, because it's a part of life and there isn't anything else that matters more...
World music. What comes to mind when one hears and sees such a thing? Confusion, peace, maybe… regret? I say regret in the fact that this review is of a Native American drum group and who knows, maybe a lot of people assumed that this didn’t exist outside of movies and television westerns. What we have here is one of many MANY modern day Powwow drum groups that exist within our own communities, but of a secret nature. Ever been to a Powwow? They usually form like those old fashioned raves where it’s based on word-of-mouth and the location is out in the boonies, or something of that sort. Once entered into the arena, the pounding of rhythmic tribal drums takes over and, as for me and probably all Native Americans, a sense of soothing calm runs through our skin. This is music from our ancestors and what many may not know, is that most of these songs played are regarded as medicine songs. Some are so old, that they go back to generations long gone. And as for medicine, you ever feel uplifted after hearing something really good?
Eyabay, from Red Lake Minnesota, are my personal choice of drum group. They play with a Northern style approach (Northern = high pitched vocables) and a Southern style influence to song structure. (Southern = slow and low pitch) The dividing line between Northern and Southern is basically everything above Oklahoma, the birthplace of the modern powwow, is Northern and below is, well, Southern. As for Eyabay, they were one of the biggest highlights in the 90’s because they did a wonderful combination of both styles, which is now a norm, but back then, a very radical movement.
This album is from the start of the new millennium on new years, recorded at a powwow I’m not sure of where. (Most drums group’s record live, because when done in a studio, they lose their rawness and heartfelt nature…) The first track is one of an immediate bursting spree of rhythmic drumming and a steady pace because it’s “Grand Entry”, or the very start of the powwow where all the dancers march into the arena/grounds circle. The “live” aspect of the recording brings about an intimate nature. You hear the MC announcing the different aspects of the dance, as well as the bells and jingles from the dancer’s regalia. Eyabay also do a wonderful thing of mixing in their own Native language while singing, which in this case is of the Chippewa tribe up north. The blend of vocables (Ay, yah, yay, yah, yay, ect…) and traditional language brings about a very insightful overview of Native America, despite you not understanding what’s being said. I don’t speak Chippewa, but I do understand the emotion and meaning behind such artistic expression.
Going through the list of tracks on the album, there aren’t any specific ones that rely on “gimmick” titles that seem to have no relation to the music whatsoever. Instead, it’s very basic and pretty much runs through a normal night at a Powwow. After grand entry comes the “Flag Song”, which is when the Veterans stand our nations flags upon their respectful poles. (Veterans are at the head of the line, often wearing regalia mixed with their retired uniforms…) The flag song is a change in pace, whereas the grand entry drummed along, keeping up-tempo and whatnot, the flag song is gradually slowed down to four, three-beat choruses executed with very soft drumming and very deep singing. Going in order, we next have the “Victory Song” which is where dancers dance in place while the Veterans and elders in the front of the grand entry line, steadily move out and clear themselves from the arena.
As a Powwow moves forward, various events happen. For instance, there are the “Intertribals”, or “free dance”, where anyone can come out and shake a leg. (Don’t literally shake a leg, or you might be considered a bit nutty…) and then the dance competitions, which are usually the highlight of the night. On this album in order, come the women’s categories which consist of, “Jingle Dress”, “Woman’s Traditional”, and Woman’s Golden Age”, but other things like, “Fancy Shawl”, “Southern Cloth”, and “Bucksin”, which is pretty much the same as women’s traditional, are absent. These are all fine and dandy, but they sort of slow down the album for me. I instead prefer the righteous male categories like, “Grass Dance”, “Traditional”, “Chicken Dance”, “Straight”, and what I have contributed a big part of my life to, “Men’s Southern Fancy”.
Most Powwow songs are about two, to three minutes in length, often going through the verses four times and ending on a solid, final beat. It’s the dancer’s job to nail that final beat, and when you jam grass dance and fancy dance songs, you can get an overwhelming sense of the power that goes into these anthems. The fancy dance song in particular on here, is four times through, but done in about one minute and thirty-nine seconds. They usually kill me when I do them these days… Oh, and also of note, on the last song of the album titled “Retreat Song”, one of the singers throws in a Woody Woodpecker laugh which causes the guys to start cracking up while trying to sing. Thus, the live recording is very raw, but special.
Ok, so what’s the point of posting this here? I’m not trying to do a history lesson, but instead trying my best to slide in something different from what is considered, “normal”. Many genres of music are written about and studied every day. In fact, I recently heard of a new one called, “Post Thrash”. What the heck is that? Regardless, it’s very good to spread yourself out a bit and experience other cultures. Eyabay are my favorite Powwow singers. I’m passionate about their craft and sense of community. In any case, I could list almost a hundred drum groups here, but that doesn’t compare to the many other artists that spring up in such and such genre. Maybe it’s good to be over shadowed and not known as much. You can get your own sense of community in those quiet places where it’s just you and your music…