“Traditional” Native American/First Nations music is dynamic and powerful, a living, breathing, still-evolving art form that connects Native Americans to each other, their communities, their shared culture and to the natural and spiritual world around them. Most traditional Native American/First Nations music features voices, percussion (drums and rattles) and the occasional flute, with very little other instrumentation.The lyrics of many Native American/First Nations songs are a combination of words from original languages and “vocables,” which are sounds that don’t correspond to actual words in any language. Common Native American vocables–like “ho” or “ya” or “hey-na”–aren’t just “nonsense syllables;” they intend to convey the given song’s emotion, and maybe even effective at doing so than wordy lyrics that could distract the listener from appreciating the true passion of the song. Many traditional Native American/First Nations songs begin slowly but increase in intensity and speed, with vocalists, percussionists and dancers (often all the same people) losing themselves more and more in the music at hand. Songs may be overtly spiritual in nature, used within tribes for the purposes of ritual, or meant to be shared in public performance. Public songs may celebrate the change in seasons or a successful harvest, express pride in the tribe, tell an important tale from the tribe’s history or just connect the performers and community with the natural world.
Despite these similarities there is also substantial diversity among the musics of Native American/First Nations people. Over the centuries each tribe developed its own style, starting with the basic common elements of Native American/First Nations music but adding their own melodic, rhythmic or even instrumental twists. We’ll learn about some of them in the next few days.