‘Stories Told: Harmonized Peyote Songs’ by Verdell Primeaux with Terry Hanks

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American Indians who participate in ancient peyote rituals are likely to be familiar with Verdell Primeaux. The Grammy-winning Lakota singer has released several CDs specifically recorded for use in peyote ceremonies and by the Native American Church. His latest, “Stories Told: Harmonized Peyote Songs,” was released in February 2008 with fellow singer Terry Hanks (Diné).

The Native American Church, founded in the late 1800s, is known for its emphasis on peyote use in healing and in spiritual rituals. Peyote is a spineless cactus that, when eaten, produces mind-altering effects said to bring out an individual’s introspectiveness. Peyote is also used as a healing medicine and its use is protected by law as an American Indian ceremonial medicine.

The first four tracks on the “Stories Told” CD are lead by Primeaux, with harmonization provided by Hanks. Primeaux’s deep voice, with the rhythmic rattling and drumming, creates an almost hypnotic, dream-like sound. The tracks are referred to as sets, rather than songs, and each is much longer than an average song would be, with the shortest set running just under seven minutes.

Listeners participating in a peyote ceremony will appreciate the album in a different way than the average listener, but the sounds seem to be performed with such emotional connection that the album can be appreciated by the standard audience.

A couple tracks on the album feature bits of English lyrics mixed in with the American Indian singing and chanting. With lyrics like “My little boy, mommy loves you, my little boy,” the singers are attempting to guide the listener through a spiritual journey.

Each track, but particularly the first two on the album, are jam packed with intense harmony that would evoke feelings from the most emotionless listener. With a western influence dominating the rhythm, the tracks seem to tell a story on their own.

Moving through the sets, the sound varies only slightly so the listener’s train of thought would only be interrupted during track changes. Individual tracks seem to be broken up by mini “songs” but the constant rattling and drumming allow the flow to continue.

The intense harmony of several of the tracks is balanced by a chanting nature in the others. The sound sometimes seems to be of African descent, but the water drum continues to make the music Native.

Listeners can easily forget the album is meant to be spiritual, as the sound is simply pleasant to the ear and could be listened to on any regular day. The third set, however, reminds listeners of the religious influence and the connection the Native American Church has had with Christianity. The artists sing of Heaven and death and the harmonizing sounds almost choir-like.

As the album moves into the fourth track, the lead singer changes from Primeaux to Hanks. Hanks has a deeper and more hypnotic voice. While the general pace and mood of the tracks remains the same as in the first four, the sound seems to change to reflect a heavier pow wow influence. The always present rattle is the defining sound of the album.

Reviewing the album without peyote influence may fail to do the artists true justice, but the album as a standalone CD is one I think of with high regard. The album is authentically Native, from the artists to the instruments to the history attached to it.

Though the album is said to be of musical prayer, it could easily be enjoyed and appreciated for its cultural value.

“Stories Told” was released by Canyon Records.