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Native music wows upscale New England

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NEWTOWN, Conn. ? "I'll bet 90 percent of the people here don't know what they're in for," said Donald Kelly, executive director of the Native American Music Association, just before the Aug. 22 "Voices Among the People" concert. "They're going to be blown away."

Kelly, along with NAMA founder Ellen Bello, was sitting in the front row of this unlikely venue for a concert featuring the activist John Trudell and previewing the upcoming Nammy awards. Trudell was making a rare East Coast tour supporting his latest album "Bone Days" (Asitis Productions/Daemon Records). At the suggestion of NAMA, Trudell graciously invited two Nammy nominees, Jana and Martha Redbone, to open the night's program.

The fully equipped theater sits in the town hall of this upscale Connecticut town, best known perhaps as the temporary headquarters of the French expeditionary force that helped the American colonists win independence. The local farmers (and their daughters) welcomed General Rochambeau's soldiers so warmly that many in the area claim descent from them. But homeowners in the region haven't been nearly as friendly toward Indians, especially since the Golden Hill Paugussett tribe started land-claim suits a decade ago. It was not the usual setting for a display of modern native music.

But that's what the evening presented, and Kelly was right. From the first act of the night, Martha Redbone's rousing rhythm and blues, the almost all-white audience was blown away. (To be sure, Connecticut has its share of aging hippies, drawn to what was a benefit performance for Bridgeport's very independent, indeed eccentric, WPKN-FM radio station.)

The New York City-born Redbone, one of the freshest faces on the music scene, represents millions of Americans now celebrating both their black and Indian roots. (Her stage name "Redbone," she said, comes from the slang term for the combination.) Nodding to her native heritage in her lyrics, she uncorked a high-energy, foot-stomping R&B delivery that had some in the audience whispering "Aretha." Her native fans have already caught on, giving her nominations in four categories for the Sept. 7 awards show.

The auditorium came to its feet after her trademark song "Vineyard," with its prophetic line "pretty soon you'll be saying that you live next door to me." The excitement came not only from the music but from the sense of witnessing the beginnings of a major star career.

Jana, the first enrolled tribal member to break into the Billboard dance music charts, is already climbing the stardom arc. She was last year's Nammy winner for "Best Pop Artist." Singing alone with recorded backup, she gave a preview of her new direction, balladic R&B pop. Her new self-written songs, notably "China Nights," make fuller use of her mellow, melodic voice than the techno dance-mix numbers that started her career, although she threw in some of them too.

A black-haired exotic beauty from the Lumbee nation of North Carolina, Jana more than held the stage without her band and usual back-up singers, confiding to the audience at one point that she didn't feel pretty when she was growing up because she wasn't blonde. But she wasn't totally solo. The pretty and very expressive signer Kathleen Favoccia joined her as a dancer, all the while continuing her interpretation for the hearing impaired.

After intermission, Trudell filled the stage with his backing band Bad Dog, along with the traditional vocalist Quiltman. Trudell has been a voice of Indian activism since the Alcatraz occupation three decades ago, and his performing career reflects a belief that cultural revival is more important now than political protest. His performances, as many know, are more recitation of his powerful lyrics than singing, although the rock music of his band provides an eerily appropriate sound setting.

The Smithsonian musicologist Charlotte Heth calls his style a return to old-fashioned elocution. (Although Trudell has explained that he chose it because he can't sing.) It's ironic that declamation, the staple of the fusty Victorian schoolroom, is now almost exclusively the property of voices of social protest, such as Trudell, poetry slamming and, yes, rap.

The show was a revelation to the audience, who almost certainly had no idea of the range of talent grouped under the label "Native American artist." But that is the message NAMA has been bringing for the past five years.