Bear Traks Digital Media set to preserve traditional music

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GREEN BAY, Wis. – Singing at pow wows for 20 years gave John Teller Jr. the background for how a high-quality live recording should sound – and the drive to preserve the traditional music.

“I’m a big fan of that live feeling – as if you were there, standing by the drum – and we try to capture that in our music,” described the co-producer of Bear Traks Digital Media, a Native-owned and operated company.

His partner is his father, John Teller Sr., a former tribal chairman of the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin and a cultural and educational consultant. The younger Teller is a 1996 Menominee Indian High School valedictorian and University of Wisconsin graduate who also develops software for the Oneida Tribe, where he is an enrolled member.

Bear Traks began in 2006 by producing local recordings of traditional Native music. Since that time, it has recorded world class champion singing groups such as Midnite Express, Little Otter and High Noon, a world champion group from the Thunderchild First Nation in Saskatchewan.

High-tech digital equipment captures clear voices and resonant drumbeat on location at pow wows or historically significant places across the country where the groups ask Bear Traks to record.

The modern equipment is the tool, but the deep purpose behind what they do is to “maintain the cultural and traditional aspects of our Native people,” notes its Web site, www.beartraks.net.

“One of the driving philosophies behind it,” the younger Teller said of Bear Traks, “is preserving and maintaining the integrity of the traditional music.”

One way that is done is by preserving the story behind the music.

“A lot of times, there are traditional songs that go back several generations that are passed down; and if there’s a story behind it, we try to include that in the production,” he explained. Likewise, if the songs are new compositions, Bear Traks encourages the artist to tell how the songs came to be.

John Teller Sr. has been devoted to cultural preservation for years. He is a fluent speaker of the Menominee language and teaches culture and language for the College of Menominee Nation. He has been going to pow wows since the 1970s and learned the traditional ways from his adopted grandfather, the late Mani Boyd, a well-known Menominee elder.

The name “Bear Traks” came about as a tribute to Boyd, who was a member of the Bear Clan, a founding member of the Menominee Chiefs drum, a chief in the Big Drum Society and a World War II veteran.

“We decided to name the company in his memory because it was Grandpa Mani’s influence and dedication to the preservation of culture, language, traditions, and music that taught us to be proud of who we are,” said John Teller Jr.

Today, the elder Teller passes on the teachings to the next generations. His son is one of those generations, having been part of pow wows for his whole life, except for a period when he served as a sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps during active duty in Iraq.

Bear Traks has more exciting releases coming out soon from the singing groups Blackfoot Crossing, Blackbear Crossing and Mile High, plus the songs of Lac du Flambeau flute player Darren Thompson.

Blackfoot Crossing’s new recording will be its first in 20 years. “Blackfoot Crossing is a world champion drum group from Alberta. The last one they did was an awesome recording, so we’re looking at releasing their new album, ‘Live at Kyiyo Pow-Wow,’” John Teller Jr. said.

Released Sept. 12, High Noon’s “Live at Hinckley” was recorded at the 17th annual Grand Celebration Pow Wow in Hinckley, Minn., where High Noon served as host drum. The group’s singers come from the Cree, Sioux, Taos Pueblo, Blackfoot and Chippewa nations, as well as the Three Affiliated Tribes (Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara).

Midnite Express’ “Band of Brothers” captures powerful singing, like the dedication that won the group a world class championship at Gathering of Nations 2008, at the 2008 Standoff in Alberta, and at 2008 competitions in Elmo, Mont., Seneca Nation and Sarcee.

Little Otter’s “Live in Milwaukee” spotlights traditional songs that have been passed down from the elders, along with new compositions. The Ann Arbor 2008 singing champions are also members of the ceremonial Big Drum Society of the Great Lakes people.

There is the debut album, “First Time Thru,” by Str8 Across, a group Bear Traks considers one of the best up-and-coming groups around the Great Lakes. They were singing champions at Oneida 2008, Indian Summer 2007 and Cass Lake 2007.

The younger Teller said Bear Traks has been honored to work with some of the bigger groups, and in the future will be producing for more newer groups looking to have their songs heard.

“As our company gets bigger, we’ll hopefully be able to record anybody and everybody,” he said. “But we do offer recording services and demos for smaller groups to help them get their start. To spend several thousand dollars on equipment is hard for a singing group that would like to get some music out there. Any way I can help the groups in any stage of the production process, I’m willing to help them out.”

With digital mixing and mastering, graphics, web development, technology consulting and educational and cultural consulting as well, Bear Traks’ team is well on its way to establishing itself as one of the few enduring Native-owned music producers. The future holds plans for traditional stories told in audio books, too.

“We try to keep the quality as high as possible. We’re influenced by Canyon Records and Indian House and a few others that have done that and set that precedent. The bar is pretty high, so we’d like to maintain that,” the younger Teller pledged.