This past weekend I made it out to the Pow Wow in Pomona for a celebration of Native American culture. The combination of these elaborate, colorful costumes with the dance steps and especially the music is fantastic. The marketplace nearby featured some impressive crafts, jewelry and some wildly creative, well-designed and humorous graphics celebrating native pride.
The music is a big draw for my ears. The singers surround a single, large drum and pound out a steady pulse in unison for the dancers. This pulse is deceptively simple (and parallels to the heartbeat are often invoked) but there's an underlying accent structure at work along with some interesting tempo fluctuations and strong punctuated beats that set off a nice contrast as each musician raises their stick just a bit higher before sending the next pulse into a higher dynamic range. And then there is the incredible singing. The songs are passed down through oral tradition and are often sung in near-unison with striking inflections as melodic lines orbit some key pitches with long phrases of deeply human cries. At some levels it seems to share some properties of Jewish cantor songs in spiritual conviction (if not so much in melodic and harmonic structure). It is music for ritual and dance that evokes reverence and profound spirituality.
Once back home I put Sacred Common Ground by Don Pullen on to hear how this great artist managed to blend the sound of this ritual-based music with jazz piano. Recorded in collaboration with the Chief Cliff Singers of Elmo, Montana from 1993 to 1995 this was Pullen's final recorded creative offering and it's an incredible success. The stark differences between these two musics stylistically, culturally and traditionally are preserved as Pullen explores some fertile sonic territory. The accent structure of the Native American drumming is shifted just slightly to sit in the 2 & 4 pocket of jazz rhythm allowing the momentum of Pullen's African Brazilian Connection some space to maneuver. It's hard to believe that Don Pullen was undergoing chemotherapy at the time much of this material as he delivers some incredible and energetic improvisations throughout this recording.