Thursday, April 21, 2005

A Different Palette

Attending a pow-wow appealed to me not only because it would be a new experience near the end of a grueling semester, but I was also told that non-Indians are welcome. I would be with my Indian anthropologist friend who wanted my take on the music, and besides, I’m usually open to any new adventure that’s not life-threatening. So I said, “Sure!”

Pow-wow celebrations aren’t held only on reservations. Almost any large American city that has an Indian population frequently celebrates their Indianism locally with pow-wows. They come together in a large hall - men, women, and children - for an evening of food, dance, song, and camaraderie. Rowdy behavior, alcohol or other drugs are taboo and strictly enforced.

Many dancers were dressed in Indian costume: men in fancy head dresses, beaded buckskin leggings and moccasins; women in colorful, flowing dresses adorned with Indian style jewelry. But, anybody can dance and participate, costume or not. About 150 persons were in the hall. Maybe half participated in the dancing.

The atmosphere was electric and compelling; primitive, as though I went through a door into another era. It was motion, color, fantasy, hypnotic, vibrating, and totally irresistible.

There was a raised drum at the center of the floor and four men in Lee work clothes were hunched over and around it, drumming and singing. (Women singers are a rarity but they are slowly making their way into a male domain). The drum was a common bass drum just as those in a high school band. Songs were begun by a lone singer who intoned a chant, followed by the others, repeating the lead and continuing into a longer section with a coda that ended a song. Its form was iterative, an “incomplete repetition”, or AABCBC, and, I learned later, it is found throughout Indian America.

These songs had an astonishingly high, non-falsetto tessitura, beginning on the chant’s highest note, gradually falling, until it ended with a vocal “fall”. The men sang full throat, straining their vocal systems with taut facial and laryngeal muscles. The scale systems in all the songs were tetra/penta tonic and all the songs had a descending melodic pattern. The songs were “Plains” style. The leader decided how many times a song is repeated by gauging the interest of the dancers and the crowd. It’s usually four or five times, but could be more.

Dancing was done in a circle, counterclockwise around the drum mostly in a free style, moving with the spirit. Men’s dancing varied from very active and energetic turns, to leaps, bends, and shuffles. Women, wearing or carrying colorful shawls, danced with more reserve and restricted movements. Kids participated too; doing whatever dance imitation they chose. Small fry accompanied their parent, who held their hand while they tried to imitate the steps. Some of them, age 8-14, were already outstanding. Other small children slept on blankets at the edge of the circle or ran around enjoying themselves. There were no behavior problems.

Non-Indians would say that Indian songs all sound alike, but each song was different, not only the contours, but also the types and functions. There were war dance songs, honoring songs, women’s dance songs, and many more. They all used the same musical form, but the drumming patterns and tempo changed for some of them. Generations ago, all these song types had words. But today, most songs are sung with vocables, although words are sometimes part of some songs. The songs aren’t notated or composed as in the European fashion. Rather, they are “made up” by a singer and often modified by fellow singers before it is accepted. There is no copyright, but certain songs “belong” to a singer and others cannot sing it. Dozens of new songs are “made” in a month and they travel quickly across Indian America on the pow-wow circuit.

The atmosphere was joyful and deafening, rock-concert loud, reverberating from wall to wall, without amps. Oddly (I thought later), I didn’t feel in the least uncomfortable there. Indeed, before a Friendship dance, I was asked to join in, but I was too shy, even though the steps appeared easy. Some of the dancers came from reservations and one of them, from whom I had been asking questions, invited me to his reservation home. Of course, I accepted. There was no date, no time. I was told the invitation was sincere and typically open.

It was late when it ended. I’m not a night person but the exhilaration of the pow-wow kept me alert with a slight high, and it was much, much later before I slept with the drum still in my head.


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