ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Despite the Southwest’s summer heat, a crowd flocked to downtown Albuquerque in mid-July to listen to the tunes of renowned Native singers.
Ojibwe singer Keith Secola headlined the annual Albuquerque Summerfest and Street Market’s Native Rhythm night. Also performing were Navajo funnyman Vincent Craig and homegrown reggae group Native Roots.
Operations Manager of Special Events Craig Rivera said he wanted to invite Native artists that would definitely draw a crowd.
It only seemed natural to include a Native night in the Summerfest because of the rich culture of the Southwest, Rivera said.
“I’m proud of the fact that we have so many Indian cultures, and tribes that still speak their language. It is an honor,” Rivera said.
Native Roots took the stage while the sun was moving to the west. Lead singer Shkeme Garcia from Santa Ana Pueblo sang trademark songs like “Rain us Love” and “Place I Called Home.”
“Tonight we celebrate Native night,” Garcia shouted. “All the Pueblos are here, Navajo and Apache. Let’s dance together.”
About 800 people attended the event. Some let the music possess them as they danced in the aisles. Others sat in chairs clapping their hands and tapping their feet.
Rivera asked how many Craig fans were present. The crowd yelled, whistled and even shouted titles of Craig’s popular songs like “Rita” and “Chizhii.”
“I’ve been a fan of Vincent Craig’s since ‘Rita’ came out in the late ’70s,” Rivera said. “I still have actual cassettes of his songs.”
Craig took the stage with his acoustic guitar strapped from his shoulder and a harmonica propped up around his neck.
A veteran, Craig gave tribute to Native soldiers fighting overseas with the songs “A Neighbor’s Son” and “Senator’s Son.”
Craig said the irony of those in command making war and not serving their own country in the military inspired him to write “Senator’s Son.”
“Our Native veterans will go anywhere they’re told to protect the U.S.,” Craig said. “They fight for the land – our land.”
Craig has an audiobook called the “Antagonist” that’s due to come out by summer’s end. It’s about a Vietnam veteran following the direction of a Navajo medicine man. The title refers to a person using the supernatural for healing purposes, Craig said.
To get the crowd cheering, Craig cracked jokes about boarding school and military surplus dorm rooms. While Craig spent less than a month in boarding school, he said it certainly left an impression he will never forget.
“I learned that human nature can adapt to any situation,” said Craig, who nicknamed his experience a “sentence at boarding school.”
It would not be a true Craig performance without hearing the song about the “crazy candy bar.” The audience joined in as Craig sang “Rita” in his well-known thick Navajo accent.
The diverse audience varied in age and race. Rivera said he did not want to book a show for a generic audience.
“Native night was a success. We try to seek some of the best talent,” Rivera said.
Aztec dancers wowed the audience as Secola’s band set up on the stage.
“Tom Bee recommended Keith and that was enough for me,” Rivera said of the artist, who was recently awarded Artist of the Year by the Native American Music Association.
Secola and his Wild Band of Indians won three NAMMYs a few weeks ago. One award was in the Best Folk/Country Recording category for his latest album, “Native Americana.”
Hoop dancers in ribbon shirts and pow wow dancers graced the stage as Secola sang ballads new and old.
A veteran performer, Secola said playing in Albuquerque is a good opportunity for the band.
“There’s a good following out here,” Secola said. “It’s part of our job to entertain the masses and it gives us a chance to present our electric.”
Secola asked audience members and Craig to join him on stage as he sang “Frybread.”
Both singers exchange humorous repertoire as dancers pretended to be frybread sizzling in the pan.
Secola said the song is symbolic of future generations rising, much like frybread dough rises.
“Frybread is like soul food in our modern ceremony,” Secola said.
Currently, Secola is working on several projects. He is helping preserve the Ojibwe language by recording elders’ stories.
“Language is part of our human process. It’s our roots that keep us Native Americans grounded and humble,” Secola said.
Secola couldn’t leave the Albuquerque stage without singing his most popular song, “Indian Cars.” The electric guitar intro brought the audience to their feet.
“’Indian Cars’ is somewhat an anthem among our followers,” Secola said. “I have a lot of fun playing it.”
Secola is scheduled to perform in Ithaca, N.Y., and northern Minnesota by mid-August. He hopes to return to Albuquerque in the fall.
After the show, people mobbed the merchandise table buying tie-dyed T-shirts with “Wild Band of Indians” written across it.
“Our merchandise is part of the business, and our T-shirts have almost become a cult must-have,” said Secola, who revealed that the Grateful Dead’s former lead singer Jerry Garcia and Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain each owned one.
Secola’s “Native Americana” album is a collection of various music genres such as blues, jazz and folk. He also includes a Round Dance version of “Indian Cars.”
“Some songs on the album I wrote 20 years ago,” Secola said of the proclaimed self-titled acoustic album.