Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's BĂȘte Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Sunday, January 22, 2006

The Grand Entry at the pow-wow yesterday -- and if you've never been to one, I recommend it; they're generally open to the public and very relaxed about attendance and attention, at least in Seattle -- very moving, all the dancers, most dressed in fabulous regalia, dancers from little kids to old people, whoever wants to dance, including a man pushing a walker, not dressed up except to hang colorful handkerchiefs from his walker -- I think seeing him is what moved me most, the idea that the dance is open to any tribal member who wants to join. Before the Grand Entry a man came and blessed me & my beloved spouse & our son by fanning burning sage over us -- he asked first, whether we wanted the blessing, and of course we were happy to receive it, and he was very friendly. (Note: in case you don't know, we're white.)

I dug into the music more than I had before. I've always liked Native American chanting, and found it to be mysterious, where the accents come, how the rhythms work. Unison singing of intricate rhythms over a relentless 2-beat on the big drum, the singers gathered around the drum, all hitting it in unison. Occasionally the drums will accent a few measures on the first beats, then another time they'll accent a few measures on the second beats. The melodies on the whole have a triple-meter feel, setting up a 3-against-2 rhythm, the triple meter in the voices overlaid on the strong duple meter on the drum. The phrase patterns remain opaque to me, and I was only able to pick them out on one song: A 15-bar (or 30-beat) cycle, 7 bars followed by 8 bars. With occasionally (I think) a few extra bars thrown in; I wasn't able to discern when they would come.

The singing was powerful -- keening, hard-edged, intricately accented.

The M.C. was a witty, friendly, boistrous man. He introduced himself (I don't remember his name) and said, "Or you can call me, 'Hey you, Indian guy,' or 'Hey good lookin'"; just don't call me late for breakfast." There were several drumming-singing groups. What the M.C. called "the host drum" was a group called Dancing Eagle; another group was the Yakama Boys. Many of the people attending came from Eastern Washington and Idaho.

People generally don't applaud after a song, and the singers don't acknowledge the audience. My most powerful memory of this performance ethos comes from November 1999 -- a date etched in Seattle history. The night before the big march against the WTO in downtown Seattle a big old downtown Methodist Church hosted a rally for international debt forgiveness, what Christians and Jews call the Jubilee, from the tradition in the Jewish Bible of freeing all slaves and forgiving all debts every 50 years. I got there too late to get into the church, but the action in the street was tremendous. Thousands of people gathered in the pouring rain. A van pulled up and blasted out wonderful electronic dance music; people danced.

Best, most memorable, most moving of all, across the street from the church, sheltered from the rain by a deep overhang making a plaza to the entrance of a bank building, a Native American drumming-singing group set up and sang their songs. After each song the hundreds of gathered lefties & assorted punks & hippies (almost all white) would roar with approval. The singers never even looked up, never acknowledged their audience, never even smiled, unless it was in private conversation among themselves. They were just there to sing their songs and be present; nothing else mattered.
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