various artists,
Voices Across the Canyon
(Canyon, 2001)

The Canyon label has specialized in recording music made by Native Americans since 1951. There is something in their catalogue for everyone, whether your taste is for unvarnished field recordings or smooth new age, country or chicken scratch or rock. This album is the fifth in a series of compilations intended to show the range of the label and it is a good way for listeners to sample music that they may not hear easily otherwise. The disadvantage of this kind of compilation recording is that any listener will find some tracks enjoyable and others less so, just because of the vagaries of personal taste.

There are 12 tracks on the CD but it clocks in at a bit over 42 minutes, which means even more music could have been put on the disc. It focuses on Canyon's recent releases; Canyon's impressive archive of vintage field recordings is featured on other compilations. As a result, those who prefer the traditional over modern fusions will find less that suits their fancy on this album. The liner notes give information on each artist and the piece that appears on this album. This makes a good introduction for those who are not familiar with Native American music, but listeners who find themselves enamored of pow-wow music, say, will have to look elsewhere for in-depth information on the tradition.

Common threads that come through on virtually every track are the importance of the drum and the flute in Native American music. The one exception is the twangy guitar-driven chicken scratch of "Come On My Darlin'" by Pima Express. Any fan of southwestern music will recognize the sound, and will probably also lament that there isn't more of it on this disc. Powerful pow-wow music, with its thundering drums and wailing chants, is featured on two tracks, "Traditional Song" by Black Lodge Singers and "Word Up" by Young Bird. Jay Begaye's "Hush My Darling" sounds similar but is round dance music and it incorporates bits of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." Further out along the fusion curve is Medicine Dream's "P'Jilasi," which adds rock guitar and a bit of synthesizer to flute, drum and chanting.

A number of cross-cultural fusions appear on this CD. "Aspen Wind" is a collaboration among R. Carlos Nakai, William Eaton, Will Clipman and Nawang Khechog. It blends Native American and Tibetan flutes and backs them with acoustic guitar and subtle percussion. Nakai is probably Canyon's best-known recording artist, and he also appears with a new version of his "Song for the Morning Star," where he is accompanied by a full string section. Those who like Nakai's solo albums will find the string section unnecessary. "Encuentro" blends flamenco guitar (Ruben Romero) with flute (Robert Tree Cody) and drum (Tony Redhouse). The haunting "Crossroads" teams flute traditions from the Great Plains (Robert Tree Cody, again) and Mexico (Xavier Quijas Yxayotl), backing them with deep drums.

Three tracks feature women's voices. Lovers of traditional music will enjoy Judy Trejo's "Paiute Stick Game Song" from her album collecting such songs. The stick game is a Native American gambling game; players sing these songs while playing the game in order to attract good luck. This song has the sort of melody that could easily get lodged in one's memory but since the liner notes say it is one of Trejo's luckiest songs, that may not be a bad thing. Delphine Tsinajinnie's performance of "Cheii Littleben's Line Dance Song" is equally memorable with her strong voice commanding the listener's attention. Sharon Burch's "We Are Here" starts in a similar vein with its repetitive verses and traditional instruments giving it force, but when keyboards and synthesizer come into the mix, it suddenly becomes less powerful (for me, at least).

For those who wish to investigate specific Native American musical traditions, there are probably better collections with which to start than this sampler. If you want to get a snapshot of what the preeminent Native American record label is releasing now, however, this is not a bad choice. In all likelihood, something you hear on this disc will capture your attention enough to send you record-hunting, and that is the real purpose of a sampler recording.

- Rambles
written by Jennifer Hanson
published 4 January 2003

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