RAPID CITY, S.D. - Sitting in Milt Lee's production studio, it is obvious the producer enjoys his work. Lee smiles broadly as he stares through a nearby wall, listening, recalling a world few people have ever seen. An eerily haunting sound emanates from Lee's studio speakers. It is music, yet it swirls in harmonies and percussive effects too ethereal to describe.
This is throat music and it is "sung" by two women. They face each other and each responds to sounds of the other, in rapid-fire sequence.
Jamie Lee, Milt's wife and partner in Lee Productions, explained that, "It's actually considered a game, like a stare down.
The women on the recording, Kaunnaq Mikkigak and Timmantiak Petalaussie, are Inuit from Cape Dorset in Northern Canada. Milt and Jamie recorded the two in Nunavut, Cape Dorset, in the fall of 1998.
"We went on a month-long, 12,000-mile trip. We drove to Ottawa in our van, then we flew to Iquelet way up north. Then we took a small plane to Cape Dorset," Jamie said. There Lee Productions recorded the throat music as part of a public radio series: Oyate Ta Olowan, The Songs of the People.
"The women learned it when they were children. 'Really, it's just a game,' they told us through an interpreter. It has no ceremonial significance, Milt said, "They've even performed it in two movies." Milt, an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, began his career as a producer recording the late Buddy Red Bow, the great Lakota country singer. "The first time I heard Buddy, I knew he was something special. It's really a shame he didn't get to go further," said Lee. Red Bow died six years ago.
The Oyate Ta Olowan radio project began four years ago. To date, Lee Productions has logged more than 46,000 miles of travel in a two-year period. From Hawaii to Mexico, to the furthest reaches of Canada, Milt and Jamie sought out traditional songs played by traditional musicians to preserve their distinctive sound heritage. Thus far, production on 26 of the 52 artists they've recorded is complete, with Milt currently hard at work on the second half.
The Lees are quick to point out that all the featured artists chose their own music, and that only acceptable "public" songs were recorded.
Recalling their effort to be sensitive to Indigenous spiritual customs wherever they went, Milt related an experience with White Mountain Apache medicine man Harris Burnette.
"He told us he didn't even know if he was going to do it until the day of the recording. He received a sign from the spirits that he interpreted as the go ahead. If he'd said no, we would have just moved on."
The Lees come by their determination to observe the often varying and exacting protocols required for their work naturally. Milt's heritage as a Cheyenne River Sioux informs all of his work, says Jamie.
In a statement about Oyate Ta Olowan the Lees wrote, "The series provides a portal into the rich cultural reservoirs of Native America, which has seldom been opened. While the airwaves have been enriched with music documentary from the Black, Latino and Celtic cultures, never has a series of this length concentrated entirely on Native American music."
The public radio series earned a Golden Reel Award from the National Federation of Community Broadcasters in San Francisco, Calif., last March. It was not Lee Productions' first. With five previous Golden Reels, the couple has become an established force in the world of public radio.