Robbie Robertson Goes Native . . . American
African Burundi drummers . . . Irish harpists . . . Spanish monks.
Sounds from just about every nook of the globe have been brought to us as the world music boom continues.
So what exotic locale will yield the next discovery?
Try our own back yard.
Four major labels currently have projects built around music of Native Americans, the most visible being Robbie Robertson’s upcoming soundtrack for a TBS television documentary series. The six-hour series, “The Native Americans,” premieres on Oct. 10, with a single disc album due Oct. 4 from Capitol Records.
Robertson, the former songwriter and guitarist of the Band, is half Mohawk, and had long hoped for a project in which he could explore the music of indigenous Americans, both traditional and modern.
“I told (Capitol president) Gary Gersh that I was going to do an album of Native American music, and Gary said, ‘I think it’s time,’ ” Robertson says. “This is one of those records with something that everybody needs to have. It addresses that kind of thing emotionally.”
Robertson enlisted a number of musicians from all over North America, hoping to show the wide variety of styles and approaches.
Among those he called is Kashtin, a duo from North Quebec that is now on Sony’s TriStar label after selling 350,000 albums in Canada as an independent act. It has a new album due in November.
Other acts tabbed by major labels include A&M;'s Songcatchers, a multicultural outfit based in Washington that combines native drumming and jazz-fusion pop (with the Neville Brothers’ Charles Neville on saxophone) and Warner Bros. Nashville singer-songwriter Bill Miller.
Howie Gabriel, vice president and general manager of TriStar Music, notes that Kashtin became popular in Canada even though the group sings in its native Innu language, which is spoken by only 10,000 people in the world.
“There were some thoughts about them singing in English, but we want to keep it as authentic as possible,” Gabriel says of the duo’s style, which incorporates traditional music into a mix of country, folk and rock.
But will this be subject to New Age fad-dom, like chanting monks?
“The crystal-New Age generation finds it mystical and romantic to identify with indigenous people and music, and there’s a danger there,” says Vernon Bellecourt, president of the National Coalition of Racism in Sports and the Media, which initiated protests against the Atlanta Braves fans’ “tomahawk chop” and other misuses of Native American symbology.
“But we hope that this will give a chance for people to hear our traditional music and our contemporary music,” he says. “It’s fresh and exciting and hopefully we’ll get the American people’s attention so they’ll want to look more closely at our culture.”