Forty years of uncompromising traditional music recording
TAOS, N.M. - In 1966, Tony Isaacs and his wife, Ida, opened a small arts and crafts shop next to their home in Taos. Over the next 41 years, that shop, Indian House, became an important connection for Indians across the nation to find traditional Native music recordings. It all started with Tony's passion for authentic Indian music.
Back in the 1940s, 14-year-old Isaacs purchased a 78 rpm Soundchiefs recording of a Plains drum group in a Los Angeles record store. His purpose was to learn an Indian song for his Boy Scout troop. Surprised by the complexity of the music, he began buying more records and trying to learn all he could about the music's structure.
In 1954, he visited the Flagstaff Pow Wow and, in 1956, the Anadarko Exposition.
''I was completely bowled over,'' he said. ''I was learning the music from old 78s. Those recordings were mostly a couple of guys playing a drum and singing, but at the pow wows I saw maybe 25 guys singing around the drums. I could hear and feel the power of the music for the first time. It was thrilling.''
One of the first things Isaacs noticed was the way dancers in the arena instinctively stop on the last beat of the song.
''There were 200 dancers,'' he recalled. ''Every one of them, young or old, knew how to stop dancing on the last beat of the song. I was puzzled. How did they know when to end?'' He asked different drummers how they knew when the song was going to end. He said they all gave the same answer. ''Don't know. You can just tell.'' That was when he realized that the music is an inherent part of the people who grow up in and around it.
Back in Los Angeles, Isaacs frequented dances held by pow wow clubs. Indians on city relocation organized the clubs and met to sing and drum at small pow wows. He made many friends at these meetings; and the more he continued to study the music's structure, writing it out in an effort to understand the rhythms, the more passionate he became about it.
He was invited to sit in, and he began to sing. Through his singing he learned to appreciate the nuances of Indian vocal styling. Where most non-Indians heard only ''hi-ya-ya,'' Isaacs understood these vocals as cultural expressions of sentiment. He called the sounds ''vocables.''
''Vocables are basically vowel sounds having different values,'' Isaacs explained to Danita Ross in a 1992 article in New Mexico Magazine. ''For example, 'o' has a different emotional value than 'e' when sung. A skillful composer works with vocables to affect a musical piece. Songs can express sadness, happiness, pride in tradition - all kinds of feelings - using only vocables.''
While studying anthropology at the University of California - Los Angeles, Isaacs seized every opportunity to travel back to Indian country. At pow wows and gatherings in New Mexico and Oklahoma, he started recording Plains music. He took a particular interest in Kiowa music, studying the language and making new friends.
''I was fascinated, so I asked if I could set up a recording,'' he said. After that, he became obsessed with creating a catalog of traditional Indian music recordings.
In 1966, Isaacs married Ida Lujan, Taos Pueblo, and moved to Taos, where together they opened Indian House Arts and Crafts. As he gained knowledge of Pueblo cultures, he noticed a difference in their vocables as well.
''As with any group, Indian music reflects the values and lifestyle of the culture,'' Isaacs told Ross. ''Pueblo music reflects a long and settled community-minded tradition, so their musical pieces tend to be long and language-based, with vocables interspersed ... The music is symphonic in structure, containing repetitive, melodic themes.''
Isaacs' personal passion for the music eventually led him to create an impressive catalog of authentic sound recordings - one of the largest collections in existence. From 1966 through 1984, Indian House produced 88 albums - all recorded by Tony with cover art designed by Ida. Sadly, Ida passed on in 1985, but after a six-year hiatus, Isaacs began the process of releasing new recordings.
Although Isaacs' work is an outstanding example of cultural preservation, he is humble about the role he played in the process.
''When the music sounds good, it isn't because of me. It's the singers, the energy and the music itself. I was just lucky to be there to capture it."