SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Flutist Mary Youngblood has emerged as a leader in the American Indian music scene. She is one of the most honored musicians in Indian country, having won Flutist of the Year twice in a row at well as Best Female Artist at the Native American Music Awards, and she won the GRAMMY last year for Best Native American Music Album for "Beneath the Raven Moon" (Silver Wave Records). Her long awaited follow-up album, "Feed the Fire," will be released on April 6.
Youngblood brings musical ideas from classical, new age, pop and traditional music and blends them together in her concept albums; for example a line from a poem inspired each track of "Beneath the Raven Moon."
"The premise of 'Feed the Fire' is about feeding the passions that we have in our lives, and keeping things alive that we love; our art, our children, our families, our partners, our interests, and our hobbies - the things that keep us going," Youngblood told Indian Country Today.
One of Youngblood's heroes, Ian Anderson, leader and founder of the legendary art rock group Jethro Tull, is a special guest on the album. "Ian was my idol, because I played flute in a rock'n'roll band after high school, and I tried to emulate what he did," Youngblood said. "I got to work with him in Pennsylvania. I told him I had a new album coming out and asked if he would be interested in being on it. He said 'If I like the music and I have the time; send it over and we'll see.' So he liked it and I'm tickled to death. I gifted him two Native flutes. He said he would like to use one on an album, so we'll see.
"It's dedicated to my birth mother, who I lost in October. I hadn't seen her in seven years. We got to reconnect, and I got to give her a promo copy of the disc. She got to hear this song that I wrote for her, which is about how she and my birth father met. She played it for a whole week; my sisters said when they called she always had the song on. It's a blessing that she got to hear it. I'm also honoring each of my sisters on the album, and I have six sisters between the adopted family and my half-sisters. The album is dedicated to all the women of my family."
Youngblood was adopted when she was seven months old by a non-Indian family and raised in a middle class background where she studied ballet, piano and the classical flute. It wasn't until she was in her 30s that she first tried her hand at the Native flute, which is traditionally played by men. "I'm half Aleut and half Seminole, Youngblood said, noting that her mother was Aleut and came from Alaska. "My father was in the Navy and he met my mother in Seattle, but they didn't stay together. She gave me up for adoption. Two non-Indian educators raised me and I was privy to a lot of typical middle class American things. I learned to walk in both worlds. It has advantages and it also sets us apart in some respects, but I think it's important for the Native community to have those bridges of people who are able to walk in both worlds. I've been called to the table more and more as my career progresses too."
Youngblood's main love was the classical flute, but 15 years ago she came across her first Native flute and immediately started performing on the instrument. She now has a collection of more than 125 Native flutes that she uses throughout her albums.
"I didn't go to special school or anything, but my father, who taught at the university, would drop me off at the music department where I would take flute lessons while he taught his evening class. I picked up the Native flute in my early 30s. I was working at a place called the Gallery of the American West for Flutes, and the gentleman across the street had a new age store, and he had a Native flute, which I thought was so beautiful. I picked it up and started playing it and people in the store clapped when I was done; I didn't even know what I was doing. Some friends of mine were coordinating an event at a local junior college and they asked me to come and play. I told them that I didn't have any real songs, and they said, 'Just play, we heard you have a flute, just play.' So I did for 20 minutes, and they paid me a good amount of money. I was just a mom who worked part time at a gallery, and all of the sudden everything went from there."
Like many American Indians, Youngblood was outraged at OutKast's performance at the GRAMMY Awards, but she sees more Native participation in the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (which presents the GRAMMY Awards) as a solution to the problem. "If they want a Native presence, I will be a Native presence," said Youngblood who is a member of NARAS. "According to my record label, they want to get their enrollment up and their membership up, but for me this is a cultural issue. I feel like I have to educate NARAS as to why Native people aren't, quote, 'joiners,' why we're not really trusting of anything mainstream. I think we need to educate them because our music is so viable and we have so many talented and creative people. I'm not going to let this go down without a fight; they can't take this away from us too."
For more information, visit www.maryyoungblood.com.