Music lies at the heart of Indian culture. From birth to death, all occasions, sacred and secular, personal and tribal, in the life of the Plains Indian are inextricably intertwined with musical performances.
Music serves numerous functions in traditional Indian culture, including religious ceremonies, healing ceremonies, work songs, game songs, courtship, storytelling, songs to bring success in hunting, agriculture, and war, and social songs and dances. As traditional culture has been influenced through contact with non-Indian cultures, the purposes and functions of music have been adapted so that music retains its meaningful role in cultural identity.
The music of the Plains is the most familiar Native American music to non-Indian peoples, due in large part to its use in television and motion pictures (including the Academy Award–winning Dances with Wolves, which featured performances by the Porcupine Singers, a well-known Lakota musical group). The high, tense vocal style, the descending melodic pattern, the vocables (meaningful syllables without a direct English translation), and the rhythmic drumming of the Plains are immediately identifiable as "Indian music" throughout the world. Because of its familiarity, it is often erroneously used in entertainment venues to represent the musical practices of all Indians, regardless of tribal or cultural identity. A recent renaissance of interest in Native cultures has, in large part, corrected this misconception. Continue reading from The University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Contemporary Native American music is unique in regards to its wide-ranging bandwidth: some contemporary artists choose to remain completely traditional, and others choose to fuse components of traditional Native American music with more modern genres. These modern genres include—but are not limited to—country, blues, rock, and hip hop. Not only does contemporary Native American music vary in this regard, but it also differs based on the degree of incorporation of the more modern genres. Some artists choose a more traditional sound with sprinkles of more modern genres such as pop, while others do the opposite in fabricating modern music with hints of traditional Native American influence. Through the application of priming, music by a Native American will almost always contain hints of the musician's past in some form. In other words, our past always influences our future actions. This key feature contributes to a central beauty regarding contemporary Native American music. Even as Native American culture is stifled, it still holds firm through its widely-encompassing music scene.
There are so many outstanding musicians in the Contemporary Native American music scene. Many of the rising and established artists in this unique genre can be found in the Spotify playlist above. To really showcase how diverse the Native American music scene is, the playlist is ordered from pieces that are highly mixed with other genres, all the way to pieces that are solely traditional in nature. On this premise, let’s start with one prominent figure: Martha Redbone. Last November, Redbone actually visited UT Austin's Briscoe Center for an event entitled "A Conversation about American Roots." It was here that I witnessed what would later inspire this writing as the soul singer gave a powerful lecture on her journey as a musician. What makes her perspective so extraordinarily unique, however, is her cultural background: she is both half Native American and half African American. She explained that while the musical segments of both cultural backgrounds tend to contrast quite a bit, anything is possible through a "brilliant collision of cultures." The "ethnically blended" influence in her music, as she calls it, came from the gospel singing of her African American father and the resilient spirit of her mother's Cherokee, Shawnee, and Choctaw culture. Continue reading from KVRX