The Music That Shapes Our Lives As Natives

I don’t know exactly what it is like for other tribes, but for the Karuk music and songs are an integral part of what defines our cultural continuum.
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I don’t know exactly what it is like for other tribes, but for the Karuk music and songs are an integral part of what defines our cultural continuum. We have songs for just about everything, traveling, working, ceremonies, animals, love, luck, items of significance on and on ad infinitum.

I remember my 89-year-old great Aunt sharing her song that described her love for her Mother’s bread. She also had a passion for everything Elvis, I think the only reason she came to my college graduation is that it included a side trip to Memphis to visit the hallowed grounds of the sacred Graceland.

I have my Harley Davidson, I hope my computer doesn’t crash, gambling, mourning and personal medicine songs. That is in addition to the brush dance, kick dance, flower dance, jump dance and other songs from specific ceremonies that I am blessed to be able to sing.

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Songs among our tribe are generally owned by the singer and others must be given permission to sing them or settlement must be made to assuage the grievance. Songs are passed down among families, are gifted to an individual from creation and inspiration or can be composed formally. We have two types of songs, tonal and those with words.

Singers are highly revered amongst our people. They are paid to bring their musical aptitudes to different ceremonies. After these dances, when it is time to eat, the call goes out “Singers and Dancers first,” (it is just assumed that those serving Elders cut in line at whim).

The central tenancy of music and song to the spirit of Natives speaks to the connection of such melodious outpourings to prayer, ritual, traditional formulas and rites. There is also a great anthem of non-secular musicianship that plays an important part of daily life. For me this is truer than for most others.

My father worked in radio a good number of years when I was growing up and many of my early memories include countless hours waiting in small town stations listening to great music. I would watch the then analog glow of the magical machines that converted the music into waves and dispersed them into the ether to the tube or transistor translators that reconstituted the sonic images into the top 40.

During my senior year in high school I made the generational leap onto the digital stage by becoming a DJ at our rez radio station KIDE 91.3. We were booming out a meager amount of watts to the limited soundscape of the Hoopa valley. I eventually worked my way up to program director and got to paint my own odd pallet of musical heroes onto the canvas of the listener’s imagination.

That is until the time I dared play Frank Zappa’s Bobby Brown which resulted in a terse phone call from the manager, forever banning the song from the airwaves of tribal radio land. Oh well, I just responded by playing that other great Zappa tune Stick It Out, sung in German with the lyrics “Fick mich, do miserabler hurensohn.” Mr. Zappa (whom I voted for president) would have been proud of my recalcitrant reaction to censorship. Teenage angst, irony and snarkiness aside I loved spinning tunes (yes we had vinyl and turntables) to whomever would listen to my musical offerings.

I continued to DJ during my college years, playing music to dancing crowds at fraternities and the Native Americans at Dartmouth House parties. I tried hard to blend my own love of what one of my friends called “New Wave Euro-Syntho Disco Shit” with the pop tunes of Michael Jackson and such, and the odd forays into musical detours such as reggae, rap, hip hop or whatever else my listeners would pleadingly request that I play to keep their booties bouncing on the dance floor. My set list would schizophrenically ballet twirl around the likes of the Clash, Human League, Bob Marley, Smokey Robinson, Prince, Depeche Mode, Afrika Bambatta, Kraftwerk (whom early rappers and hip hop DJs sampled), and the Sugarhill Gang. This was interspersed with the occasional tip o’ da’ hat to the legends such as Hank Williams Sr., Elvis, Glenn Miller and Patsy Cline. Like the way I approach life, my mix master identity (DJ Sven) is built on incongruity with a modus operandi of misdirection and subterfuge my methodology.

Fast Forward to today. I own around 3,000 vinyl albums, 1,000 45s, 2,500 CDs, 140 gigabytes of Mp3s (which equals a little over 80 days of great tunes to enjoy). I have grown to the age (and more relevantly financial stage), where I have the toys of my youthful entranced visions. My home stereo includes two pair of Bose speakers and my car stereo bumps down the road with a self-powered subwoofer thumping to the beat.

I also have a credit limit that allows me to see some of my musical idols. This summer I am going with my bubby, his wife and my son to Rodger Waters of Pink Floyd and just today I got my tickets for U2. They will be playing one of my top 10 albums The Joshua Tree in it’s entirety.

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Oh, the first present I got my son, Kyle, was a tape player that was designed to hook up to his crib and soothe him back to sleep when he awoke in the middle of the night. That tape had on it Frank Zappa, Pink Floyd, The Who, U2 and many other favorites. I don't know how much soothing it did but it worked some magic on him. As a physics project, he just built a sound equalizer that I hope to add to my stereo system.

Indeed, “music has charms to soothe the savage breast.” Yes, that is the correct quote-I do not know how it evolved to savage beast. It might have something to do with Pete Townshend smashing his guitar after one of his trademark bunny hops and windmill chops on a guitar that had seconds to live, but I digress.

Music is an international language that has indigenous roots in all soil of mother earth. The first song we hear is the syncopated rhythm of a heartbeat while in the womb. The last things that memorialize us at our funerals are the songs and music that is shared (I already have a mix tape playlist prepared). Music is a connection to the universe and harmony is its message.

Just my two dentalias worth.

Andre Cramblit is a Karuk Tribal member that still owns a turntable, and cassette deck and even once had a recording quadraphonic 8 track set up. He listens to music in Arcata, CA loves the digital download, and appreciates his wife Wendy who understands his need to seek musical nirvana.