TAHLEQUAH, Okla. - The Cherokee National Youth Choir, considered one of the top Native language choirs in America, has been awarded the 2007 Native American Music Award for Best Gospel or Inspirational Recording.
The choir was honored for its new release, ''Comfort and Joy,'' a compact disc that features 12 selections of popular Christmas songs translated and recorded in the Cherokee language. It is the choir's fifth recording, and its second with a holiday theme.
The CD features many old favorites such as ''Joy to the World'' and ''We Wish You a Merry Christmas.'' This year, two newly translated favorites have been added to their holiday repertoire: ''Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer'' and ''Jingle Bells.''
The choir - 55 Cherokee students between the ages of 12 and 17 from throughout the tribe's 14-county jurisdiction in northeastern Oklahoma - was originally organized in 2000 as a means of generating interest in Cherokee language revitalization. New choir members are chosen each January by audition. They do not have to be fluent Cherokee speakers to participate. The overall goal of the youth choir is to enhance language skills.
Many of the songs performed by the choir were translated years ago and have been enjoyed by generations of Cherokee speakers. A team of translators from the tribe's Sequoyah Language Immersion program, including Native speakers and language instructors, translates the songs performed by the choir. The team includes Anna Huckabee, Dennis Six Killer, Bobbie Gale Smith and Kathy Sierra, a fluent speaker of Cherokee and the choir's coordinator.
''I'm so proud of each of these young men and women,'' Sierra said in a release. ''It is the kids and their dedication to Cherokee culture that makes the youth choir such a success.''
Mary Kay Henderson, a professional musician and vocal instructor for more than 25 years, has been the choir's director and arranger since 2003. She said generating interest in the language is what it's all about. ''Anything is easier to learn if it is set to music,'' she said. ''We have seen this to be true when teaching songs and other Cherokee phrases.''
''The choir was organized around three objectives: language, leadership and community,'' she explained. ''Everything we do revolves around those objectives. We are helping empower language through the music, bringing the community together through performance and inspiring leadership in our youth. Many of our choir members have been hailed as outstanding leaders in school and college.''
Music is also a good way of bridging the generations, bringing young and old together in the process. On certain selections of ''Comfort and Joy,'' the choir is joined by the Cherokee National Adult Choir and by younger children from the language immersion program.
This year, the choir has been invited to participate in the 2007 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. The group will ride on a float called ''Bountiful Harvest'' and perform along the parade route. They will stop at Harold's Square for a one-minute televised performance to be broadcast live on NBC.
''It is such an honor to be a part of this historic event in New York City,'' Henderson said.
''Comfort and Joy,'' which also features musicians Jason French on keyboards and Jeffrey Parker on guitars and bass, was recorded at Tahlequah's Cimarron Sound Lab and on location at the Crescent Valley Baptist Church, in Woodall. Jeffrey Parker was the album's producer and engineer. Neil Morton, the tribe's director of education, and Cherokee Principal Chief Chad Smith were the executive producers of the project.
''The members of the youth choir are wonderful ambassadors for the Cherokee Nation,'' Smith said in a release. ''We are all proud of their accomplishments. I congratulate everyone involved with the choir on this achievement.''
The choir has performed at the opening ceremony of the National Museum of the American Indian in 2004; at Washington, D.C.'s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts; at the Crazy Horse Memorial at the Black Hills of South Dakota; before President Bush at the White House; and at the site of ground zero in New York City. They have also appeared live with Rita Coolidge and Dolly Parton.
The choir recently finished recording its sixth album, ''Precious Memories,'' a CD that is scheduled to be released this Christmas. Henderson said their plans for the future include more performing. ''We are just going to keep on learning and keep on singing,'' she said.
''Comfort and Joy'' is available now at the Cherokee Nation Gift Shop, CDBaby.com, Amazon.com, Apple iTunes and other retail outlets.
Highlights from their travels are also available on the choir's first DVD, ''Live From Washington, D.C.,'' released in 2005.