Joseph Fire Crow,
Fire Crow
(Makoche, 1996)

"I made my first flute in the summer of 1977," Joseph Fire Crow begins the liner notes to his surprisingly textured and haunting collection of Northern Cheyenne flute songs, Fire Crow. Few, if any, of contemporary music's most sincere performers -- from Bob Dylan to Lucinda Williams and whomever else -- can boast of the summer when they twined the strings along their first self-made guitars. This speaks to the heart of Fire Crow's achievement, as each song resounds with the urgency of a confession to the universe. There are no neon hairdos or flashy synthesizers gunning for pop-chart glory here. This is music made with a man's hands and residing within him, a music of the sort of honesty and integrity that eludes the vast majority of listeners in modern western culture.

"Image is everything in this game," Mick Jagger suggested in a recent story. Well, if Fire Crow's austere instrumental ruminations attest to anything, it is that this is no game, and that though we are listeners bound by an age in which image seems to routinely trump substance, still there are artists for whom music has never been about anything less than the blood, the bones and an open wound from which to speak. That is not to say that all good music derives from affliction, and certainly Fire Crow has its many moments of rapture and awe, but nothing could be closer to the truth in the case of Fire Crow, a member of the "Lame Deer" tribe of Northern Cheyenne Native Americans whose affection for music arose from so much penury and loss.

"The music was beautiful to my ears, yet it scared me," he recalls from the war dances of his childhood, "There was much poverty and depression at the time. The sound of the flute touched my heart where there was much pain and uncertainty." Borne of uprootedness and longing, Fire Crow's flute affords his listeners precisely this experience of healing, protection and guidance. Even "First Flute Song," a simple, green song from Fire Crow's earliest days as a flutist, snaps with unexpected bursts of drums amid a vast and hypnotic landscape of weary beauty. Sounds of desert winds and a ghostly vocal accompany the echoing notes of "creator's prayer," while a virile rush of percussion ushers in the album's richest vocal performance on "Round Dance Song," featuring the voices of the Goodhouse family. Even the likes of Enigma could not coerce the despairing cries of "Wolf Song" into anything more genuine or stirring that it already is. Wolf songs "are passed on from one generation to the next and it is the fluteman's work to see this is done," Fire Crow explains.

But amid the storied losses of Fire Crow's people, the album's most poignant moments occur during its most festive melodies, demonstrating that the Native American musical tradition has not been entirely characterized by lament after suffering the blows of history. "Round Dance Song," for one, is a song that "makes you feel good!" as Fire Crow explains, while "Woman Comes First" serves as an adoring tribute to Fire Crow's daughter, Karrie. Likewise, the somewhat faster-paced "Fire Keeper" is a song for Fire Crow's son, Brandon. There is as much celebration and tribute here as there is sadness, guaranteeing the capacity for Fire Crow's music to emerge from the injustice and brutality to which his heritage was held witness.

- Rambles
written by Gianmarc Manzione
published 5 July 2003