PAWNEE, Okla. - The Grammy nominated Young Bird is one of the hottest drum groups on the circuit. In March they released "Southern and Northern Style Pow-Wow Songs," a studio album where they alternated tracks with the northern style drum group Midnite Express. It is the second in a series of albums the group is doing in conjunction with northern groups. They have also just released "YB Style," a live recording made in Indio, Calif. It is their eighth album, and two more releases are already in the planning stages. Young Bird is also currently on the road in the middle of a 50 pow wow tour.
Young Bird's lead singer, Curtis Hamilton-Young Bird, comes from a family that is seeped in the pow wow tradition. "Everybody grows up dancing," Hamilton-Young Bird said, "but when I was 10 years old I became interested in singing, and it kind of went from there. I started out with the Blue Hawk Singers in the late 1980s, singing northern style."
Along with many of his fellow Young Bird singers, Hamilton-Young Bird joined Rose Hill in the early 1990s, then broke away from the drum to start his own group, taking some of the members with him. While elders and family members gave guidance to the group, Hamilton-Young Bird describes the group as self-taught. "It just started out with cousins and local singers from around home. Once we started going around we started getting other singers interested along the way. Different singers sing with us now from different tribes and we've made brothers along the way." The group is so large that it's constantly changing, but it always represents at least a dozen different tribes, which reflects its Oklahoma roots.
Young Bird came on strong in 1997 when they first hit the pow wow circuit by utilizing unorthodox rhythms and harmonic variations on the traditional song structures.
There was also a street/rez credibility to their songs, with titles like "Big Poppa Pimpin'" and "Soul Sistas," which proved to be very popular. In 1997, only three months after the group began performing, Canyon Records, one of the major labels of Native music, approached Young Bird. "It was kind of strange that a big label like that wanted to record us," Hamilton-Young Bird said. "My guys were overwhelmed, we were happy. It was unbelievable at the time."
The group was nominated for a Grammy in 2001. Not only are their albums artistically important in showing a turning point in pow wow music, they are also beautifully recorded to create a big, clear sound that mimics the live sonic experience. "I took 21 people to the Grammys," Hamilton-Young Bird said. "We were the largest group there. Every since we started it's been unbelievable. We were only together one year when we were the first Southern group to win the big pow wow and drum contest in Bismarck, N.D. at the 1998 United Tribes International Pow wow." Young Bird was the first southern style group to be nominated for a Grammy and they won many contests that were traditionally taken by northern style groups.
Young Bird's recent CD with Midnite Express is a continuation of the concept they first began with their 2000 album with The Boyz, from Minneapolis, "Down 4 Life," where they mixed the two styles on one CD. Hamilton-Young Bird came up with the concept to put the two styles together on one album because no one had tried it before. "Southern style is more of a lower, mellow style, calmer; northern style is more energetic," Hamilton-Young Bird said. Northern style uses a higher falsetto on the vocals and the two styles have different structures.
While their music is appreciated by different drum groups and dancers, they are also one of the first drums to be heavily marketed; Young Bird CDs are readily available in major chains like Virgin, Hastings, and even some Wal-Mart stores. Along with their exposure on the web, they are credited with taking southern style pow wow music to a much larger audience throughout the nation and the world. When asked if there was a commercial barrier for pow wow music, which unlike other Native music styles, is not marketed toward the upscale New Age crowd, Hamilton-Young Bird laughed and said "that's something else we're trying to change."
Hamilton-Young Bird attributes the group's success to the amount of work they put into getting their name out in front of the people and the miles they put on the road. "We just started singing, we played around all the big drum groups that had been together for 10 or 15 years, all we do is sit down and give it our all every time we sing," Hamilton-Young Bird said.
"In Young Bird's history we've only practiced three times. On the CD with Midnite Express we made up those pieces on Monday and recorded them on Tuesday. We learned those songs on the spot."
While the group is in a constant state of exhaustion through pow wow season, the singer said his biggest problems are keeping such a large group together and the constant challenge of living on the road. "I lose guys who find girlfriends along the way. I've lost a lot of singers from the guys shacking up. One thing we keep is mind is prayer for travel, because we're on the road all the time. Last year we played at 41 pow wows and this year we're right at the halfway point, at 24 pow wows. It gets to you. Thank God for Hall's Mentho-lyptus," Hamilton-Young Bird laughed.
Young Bird is already planning their next album, which will be another Northern/Southern style compilation, this time featuring Bear Creek, a drum group from Ontario. Hamilton-Young Bird wants to create "Best of" anthology for their tenth release. For more information on Young Bird, visit CanyonRecords.com.