Grammy joins, recognizes Native music

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After 10 years of lobbying from Native artists, publicists and record companies, the Grammys finally announced it would set up a separate award category for Native American music.

Although only one of 100 Grammy categories, the award amounts to long-sought recognition that Indian music and musicians are a significant and growing part of the mainstream music industry.

"Ultimately the winner is the culture and the people making this music," said Tom Bee, Dakota, president of SOAR Corp., in Albuquerque, N.M. Bee, a veteran musician and founder of Sound of America Records, started petitioning the Grammy sponsors for a Native American category 10 years ago.

"I rode this horse first," he said. "I'm elated, I'm excited not only for the music but for the people this will recognize. It's been a long time coming. It's a long time overdue."

Ellen Bello, founder and president of Native American Music Association and Awards Inc., was equally excited. "We, NAMA, are ecstatic and elated. This calls for a time for the entire Native American community to participate in a unified celebration surrounding this momentous development.

Bello started the Nammys award program in 1998 as part of the campaign for Grammy recognition. After two highly praised annual presentations, however, the Nammys has a life of its own, she said. "I think it's going to help the Nammys" she said of the Grammy announcement. "It raised the credibility of this whole genre of music.

Plans for the third annual Nammys are well underway. It will be held in November in the Popejoy Hall in Albuquerque. Ballots for nominees in 32 categories will be released in mid-July. A Best of the Nammys Show I also is in the works for the winter Olympics at Salt Lake City in 2002, she said.

The Grammy sponsors, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences gave indirect credit to this lobbying campaign in announcing the new category. In a prepared statement, Academy President Michael Greene said, "Just a few years ago, the number of artists, releases and industry support necessary to create a category such as Native American Music did not exist.

"The face of music is changing and growing. Different cultures which rarely received much public attention are beginning to become recognized. Our understanding of the music, traditions and challenges which face this community is growing."

Bee and Bello, and a host of others, had a long and frustrating time of bringing the Academy to this understanding. "They had us get all this information," Bee said. "We had to furnish information about the labels, about the record sales, about the artists. And then the next year they wanted more."

When Bello joined the effort in the mid-'90s, writing a detailed proposal, she was so frustrated by the lack of response she concluded that Indian music needed an awards program of its own. The result was the Native American Music Awards, which held its first program at the Mashantucket Pequot's Foxwoods Casino in 1998.

The second annual Nammys, last November in Albuquerque, stepped up the interest at the Grammy-sponsoring Recording Academy. Diane Theriot, Academy vice president of awards, called Bello to ask if she would resubmit the proposal for an Indian Music Grammy.

Another good omen came earlier this year when the seminal Indian flutist, R. Carlos Nakai, Navajo/Ute, received a double Grammy nomination, the first for an Indigenous musician. He was considered for separate albums that differed greatly in style, but they were both placed in the same New Age category. This constricted outlet by itself showed to many that the Grammy awards needed to be expanded.

The Academy acknowledged as much in this week's announcement: "Prior to this category's establishment, Native American recordings were typically placed in the Folk, World or New Age categories. But with the growing number of releases in this genre, and a blurring of musical styles, an independent category was needed."

The new category for "Best Native American Music Album," will be placed in the Folk Field, NARAS announced. A special committee will screen entries.