Wind Riders,
The Renaissance of the
Native American Flute

(ARC, 2001)

When one attempts to combine Native American music with electronic enhancements and instruments, one walks a thin line. How do you keep the integrity of the original traditional music without sacrifice? Think about it. The entire project could wind up sounding like music from a B cowboy movie of the late '70s. In this sampler, two groups, the Native Flute Ensemble and the Mesa Music Consort, attempt with a high degree of success to take on this formidable task.

What makes the task so formidable? Because it comes already burdened with the media images of the Native American as a group of people inextricably enmeshed in the fabric of the earth and universe. Automatically, any addition of electronics presents a problem.

The Native Flute Ensemble has been active in recording traditional and contemporary Native American music for the past decade. The Mesa Music Consort has been at the forefront of the contemporary Native American music scene. "The objective of the group has been to 're-tell' Native American myths via music often using electronic keyboards and nature sounds in addition to traditional native instruments such as the flute and pow-wow drums," according to the disc's liner notes.

It is important not to forget this, to allow Native American music to take its own course and not take a limiting attitude toward it, as is so typical in folk music circles. With profound respect for maintaining the integrity of traditional music, one must remember that this music is not being produced by five Yankees from Pittsburgh, but by Native Americans who want to add electronics to their sound. In other words, we have no right to expect Native American music to sound like field recordings or Carlos Nakai forever!

And the music on this CD does not! The simplicity is there, the peace of soul and oneness with nature is there, but the tasteful inclusion of background electronics is there, too. Each piece of music comes with an informative exposition about the culture behind the music. You will also learn charming trivia, such as the word for flute in the Lakota/Sioux tongue translates as "enlightening breath," and that a young man would go deep into the wilderness to find a piece of wood from which to make a flute and then compose a piece never heard before to play outside the tent of a young woman he wishes to court.

One piece, by Mesa Music, reflects a story in which Wolf Woman asks for the aid of the Hawk Spirit, encapsulating the powerful respect for animals and their many admirable traits and characteristics held by so many Native American tribes. The liner notes themselves are worth the price of the CD for these marvelous little nuggets of knowledge.

The music itself is centering in a new age or Zen sense. In fact, the possible Asian origins of some Native Americans is self-evident in this music. So to speak of Zen in the same breath is not far-fetched. It is not a music that thrashes wildly at the psyche with fast cascades of notes and a head hammering assault on the senses. Rather, while it may seem to trite to say so, it is calming, nurturing music for the soul, slow extended notes on the flute against a backdrop of steady pow-wow drum beats, often single beats without frilly and ornamented rhythms, with the occasional echo as might be found to exist in a canyon as heard on "Dream Echoes" from the Native Flute Ensemble. The liner notes that, "In almost all the native tribes where the flute is used, one of the flute's primary uses is to access the subconscious of the listener and to put them into a dream-like state."

The only thing I would change about this music is that I long for the animal sounds to be genuine and not simulated. This drags the remarkable accomplishment of this fusion down. Fake birds and crickets, buffalo hooves and thunder don't cut it, while the non-intrusive and tasteful enhancement of electronics is OK. Still one must bear in mind that this is a re-telling of myths and not a kind of music from an anthropological study. If you like music as by the wonderful flute master, Carlos Nakai, you will probably like this compilation. If you frequently visit university libraries to listen to recordings of the genuine Ghost Dance made in 1955 or some such, you probably will not.

- Rambles
written by John Cross
published 26 April 2003

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