JEMEZ PUEBLO, N.M. - The popular drum group Black Eagle recently won the 2003 Native American Music Award for Best Pow Wow Album and they are GRAMMY nominees for Best Native American Music Album for their CD "Flying Free." The group is famous for using state of the art technology with their traditional music so even their studio recordings have a thundering "live" feeling. They have built a following that spans the entire country due to their tireless touring during the pow wow season and their popular albums.
Black Eagle's George Toya talked with Indian Country Today about the history of the group and the next steps in what is sure to be a long and legendary career. "Around 1987, Malcom Yepa, he's the leader of the group, went to the big Lame Deer celebration in Montana and got together with his relatives," Toya said. "One of his relatives was married to Jimmy Little Coyote, who introduced Malcom to the pow wow world, and taught him the protocol and how things are done. With that knowledge, Malcom, who was 15 or 16 years old, came home excited and told his brother and the rest of the cousins about what he had learned and they wanted to try it out and see what they could do with it. The guys all participated at home with the traditional drum, and sang and danced, so it came to them naturally. They bought some cassette tapes of some of the popular drum groups and started singing those songs at local pow wows, and developed a following."
Once they started playing at pow wows Black Eagle became friends with many of the other popular drum groups traveling Indian country. "The Black Lodge Singers encouraged us to start composing songs in our own Towa language, which has never been done before in the pow wow world," Toya continued. "Our first album was recorded for Indian Sound Records out of Oklahoma in the 1980s, and it was well received. The recording itself was not great but the songs were good. The following year we recorded our next album and it went over pretty well too. In 1998 we became acquainted with Tom Bee of SOAR Records and in 1999 we recorded 'Soaring High.'"
While recording "Flying Free" the band got to play with a part of Native American music history when they used bells that were featured on Tom Bee's classic albums with Xit. "When we were recording our album we needed some bells, so Tom ran to his house and found the bells that were used on the Xit album back in the '70s. They were utilized again, used for what they were made for, and it was a good feeling. I was listening to Xit when I was in high school, it defined my high school years, that's what we were listening to, along with the crappy stuff that was on the radio," Toya laughed. "When we met Tom it was like meeting one of my idols, and now we're good friends."
While Toya was honored to have won at the 2003 Native American Music Awards on Nov. 15 in Albuquerque, N.M., he was particularly happy about the group's performance at the awards ceremony. "The NAMMY ceremony was pretty nice," Toya said. "We got together 20 traditional dancers, including one of our elders who has been dancing for years and years, he's 87 years old, so we asked him to help us out and perform."
Black Eagle's album is also nominated for a GRAMMY along with two other drum group albums, by the Black Lodge Singers and Northern Cree Singers, and two contemporary albums, by flutist R. Carlos Nakai, and Tom Bee's Christian music. The GRAMMYs will be held Feb. 8. "Our youngest member, at the time we recorded 'Flying Free,' was nine years old," Toya said. "I don't know for sure, but we're hearing that we have one of the youngest GRAMMY nominees ever, little Shawn Yepa."
While obviously proud of the group's nomination, Toya voiced the same opinion a lot of Native Americans have about GRAMMY nominations which throw all Native music into one category. "The GRAMMYs are prestigious, but there's only one Native American category, and it's under 'Folk Music.' It's a mix of traditional and contemporary, like this year R. Carlos Nakai, who plays contemporary/new age music, Tom Bee's album, and three traditional pow wow albums. Last year all of the nominees, except for one, were New Age. Personally, I think there ought to be two categories, one for traditional music, and one for contemporary. Every other type of music is represented there as a category. It's really not fair when contemporary music wins one year and traditional the next year. Indian music is too diverse to lump into one category."
Black Eagle already has the material for their next album, but have yet to decide whether they want to record it live or in the studio. "Our last album, 'Flying Free,' is a studio-recorded album, but it has a live sound. We utilized the technology available today and recorded it like any other musician would record a rock or a rap album; we tweaked it so that it sounds like a live pow wow album. As for traveling, everything the group does depends on our calendar back home. All of our members are drum people, pretty much from the same family. Our first language is our traditional language and everyone participates in what goes on back home, so that's what dictates how much we travel, pretty much. We sell our CDs everywhere we go, and we're not getting rich off of them, but the proceeds help us out with our travel money."
For more information on Black Eagle and their music, visit blackeagle1989.com.