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Grammys hear the beat of tribal drum groups

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Drum groups make the biggest sound in the lineup for the first-ever Native American Music category in this year's Grammy Awards. As some had expected, the nominees come heavily from the traditional side of this highly diverse musical world.

One group, in fact, is so anti-commercial that it would rather play at Sun Dances than pow wows.

Even though the category is one of 100 in the Feb. 21 Grammys, recognition by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Science will give unprecedented exposure to American Indian music and its performers. The winner will be given an on-screen mention during the nationally televised awards show said NARAS president Michael Greene, even though time won't allow a formal presentation or live performance. The actual presentation, he said, would take place in a pre-broadcast ceremony.

Since the members voting in this category produced a heavily traditional lineup, Greene said the academy would be considering splitting off a second category for contemporary Indian music, oriented to younger performers.

Here are the five nominees in line for the history-making award in Los Angeles. In addition, R. Carlos Nakai will have another shot at the New Age award, after receiving a double nomination in that category last year.

Lakota Thunder

No leap into the spotlight may have been greater than the one for this young group from the Standing Rock Reservation, straddling the North and South Dakota line. It plays mainly at Sun Dances and naming ceremonies in Lakota country. Courtney Yellow Fat, lead singer with his brother, Dana, says the group doesn't hit the pow wow circuit much. "Pow wows are getting too commercialized. There's too much money involved."

Its 13 members are primarily Hunkpapa Sioux, and its first record, "Veterans Songs" opens with a tribute to the tribe's great spiritual leader Tatanka Iyotake (Sitting Bull). Like much of their music, this song was preserved "underground," said Yellow Fat, who teaches Lakota culture at the Standing Rock Community High School in Fort Yates, N.D. "We learned it from our elders and we will eventually teach it to our children."

The group's album, produced by Makoche Records, is practically a history of the Lakota warrior tradition, from the fight against Pahin Hanska, "Long Hair," Lt. Col. George Custer, to distinguished service in two world wars, Korea and Vietnam. "We start back when we were fighting against the U.S.," Yellow Fat said. "Then we make a transition with the Flag Song to when we were fighting for the U.S."

Yellow Fat said he was puzzled at first that so many Lakota enlisted for World War I when at that point they weren't even citizens of the country. But then, he said, "an elder told me that we as Native Americans always felt we had a duty to protect this land from enemies."

Recording this tribute "to the elder people, the veterans, and their struggle" aroused deep emotions, Yellow Fat said. "You can hear it on the record."

Joseph Fire Crow

The other nominee from the Makoche label, Fire Crow is still stunned by the honor. When he first heard the news, he said a friend came in his living room where he was leaning on a sofa and said, "Look, you are shaking like a leaf."

"I looked at my arm and I was vibrating. I thought I was in deep thought, trying to handle this thing."

A Northern Cheyenne, Fire Crow, 42, was born on the Montana reservation and reared there until he was 9 when he placed with a foster family in Seattle as part of the Mormon Indian Placement program. He grew up as a Mormon until his college years at Brigham Young University. Before finishing his senior year, he left for the reservation. "I was starting to forget my Cheyenne language and heritage. I needed to find out who I really was."

Back home, he said, it took years for him to regain acceptance, but he reconnected with some of his earliest memories. As a boy on the rez, he first heard the Native flute. "Grover Wolfvoice was the flute man paying this wonderful music."

But inspiration for a musical career ranged as far afield as seeing Wayne Newton on the Ed Sullivan show, he said.

After releasing two self-produced records, he signed with Makoche in 1995. Label co-founder David Swenson "tracked me down to my sister's house on the rez," he said. He was impressed by Makoche's plans to represent Northern Plains music, and his 1996 album became one of the company's biggest sellers. His current Grammy-nominated album "Cheyenne Memories" mixes the traditional flute with contemporary instrumentation.

Fire Crow moved to the mountain terrain of Winsted, Conn., a bit more than three years ago to be with the love of his life and future manager Joann Moore, whom he met at the Schemitzun pow wow of the Mashantucket Pequots. Now, he says, "I find myself burning cedar and saying a little prayer" while waiting the awards show.

"It's just the greatest honor ever, not just to be nominated but to be making history" in the first year of this category. "In the meantime, I'm trying to keep myself grounded."

Black Lodge Singers

Ken Scabby Robe and his sons have won most of the awards around for Indian music, but he is still impressed by the Grammy nomination. "Well, it's a bit of a shocking deal, you know. I can't believe it yet."

A member of the Blackfeet tribe from Browning, Mont., Scabby Robe started the Black Lodge Singers after moving to Washington state and raising a family with his wife, a Yakima Indian. His 12 sons were still small but they wanted to go with him on the pow wow circuit, where he is still a championship dancer. He said he figured they would just be spending money if they didn't participate, so in 1982 he told them, "The only way you'll go is if you'll sing or dance. They said, 'We choose to sing.'"

After watching them study tapes, Scabby Robe says he took down his drum and started teaching them songs. He figured they'd give it up after a while, but in a year and a half the group won its first drum contest. Since then, the Black Lodge Singers have traveled all over the country and even to Greece to play with the Macedonian symphony orchestra.

The group has recorded with the Phoenix Symphony in an original work composed by James DeMars. The record, the "Two Worlds Concerto," won a Native American Music Award three years ago. But one of its most famous albums is the light-hearted "Kid's Pow Wow Songs," featuring folk tunes and cartoon themes like the Mighty Mouse jingle.

"Mainly why I did that was that a lot of little kids weren't really into the circle," Scabby Rose said. "A lot of them would sit around, but they wouldn't sing. After the tape came out, I noticed a lot of little kids were singing the songs."

The Grammy nomination is for the more traditional album "Tribute to the Elders," but Scabby Robe, a Baptist minister, said he is planning a future album of gospel songs, done Indian style.

Joanne Shenandoah

The diva from the Oneida Nation in New York may be the best known and most widely heard of all the nominees in the non-Indian world. Her music was featured on the television series "Northern Exposure." She opened the Woodstock '94 music festival and performed several times for Hillary Clinton.

Her records are noted for her soaring lyrical voice, in keeping with the melodic style of Eastern Woodlands music. She is nominated for her latest release "Peacemaker's Journey" on the Silver Wave label.

Gathering of Nations

Pow Wow

Rounding out the nominees, this annual compilation album features the drum groups from the annual Gathering of Nations Pow Wow in New Mexico, considered one of the largest in the country. Pow wow records have been the staple of the American Indian music industry for decades, but Tom Bee, founder of Sound of America Records (SOAR), boasts that his label brought unprecedented sophistication and production values to the genre.

A Dakota based in the Southwest, Bee built SOAR from scratch into the first Indian-owned record company after a career with the ground-breaking rock group XIT. He was also a main force lobbying for the Native American category in the Grammys. The 1998 version of the Gathering of Nations compilation won for Best Pow Wow Recording in last year's Native American Music Awards.

On the eve of the first-ever Grammy award for Native American Music, the Recording Academy is thinking of adding another category for contemporary Indian performers, Greene said. "That may be the first split we do."

"The important thing is to go after the younger Native musician."

Greene said his family is from a town in northern Georgia, heavily inhabited by Eastern Cherokee who went underground at the time of Andrew Jackson.

Nominations in the new Grammy category sent a shock of excitement through the Native music world, performers and label executives are saying.

"It's an important validation," said Robert Doyle, president of Canyon Records. "This is the biggest of all the awards." Doyle added he expected the academy would add more Indian categories, "but they're not going to do it without considering it for some time." He said he hope to see the expansion "within three to five years."

In the meantime, Greene said the academy is seriously pursuing "outreach" to American Indian musicians. "We were at the Native American market at Santa Fe for two years," he said. ""I went to Oklahoma City to the Native American Music Educators convention. We are very optimistic that membership from the Native American community is going to grow in coming years."

Leaders in American Indian music started to lobby for a Grammy category 14 years ago, say label executives. The movement picked up steam over three years ago with establishment of a Native American Music Award program, the Nammys.

Greene's organization, formally known as the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences Inc., has been presenting the Grammys since 1957. Its 43rd annual awards show will be broadcast from Staples Center Feb. 21. The three-hour show on CBS-TV will reach a worldwide audience of nearly 2 billion, he said.