There is one thing that every powwow must have, Music. There must be at least one drum and one singer. The drum is the heart, figuratively and actually, without it there can be no Powwow. Songs permeate our lives, traditionally we had a song for everything and every occasion. Songs were our historical record and handed down from generation to generation. Singers are still valued and honored; they hold our traditions and our strongest connection to the past. Good singers spend hours a day listening, learning, imitating and repeating. Modern advances such as tape recorders and now mp3 players recorders and ipods has made the dissemination of songs easier but the dedication is still there. Listen, learn imitate and repeat.
Let’s first give you a sample of powwow music. The video below is of the Black Lodge Singers, they are a Blackfoot group out of Montana and they have been one of the best groups over the past 20 years. They have even won Grammy Awards.
I know that for some readers this will be the first time hearing Indian singing, and it may not quite be what they were expecting. The 4 note descending beat made popular by Hollywood films is not only missing, it does not exist. So what was all that noise? That was a contest song. If you listened carefully you would have heard the basic structure of Indian music. You have a lead singer. He sings the first “verse” or lead of the song. The other singers repeat the lead and all go into the body. Each lead and body is called a pushup. The singers or drum will perform 4 pushups for a typical contest song. If there is only one singer, the lead is omitted.
There are two main styles of singing. Northern style, like above, is characterized by a higher pitch voice and a slower beat, and southern style with a lower pitch voice and a slightly faster drum beat.
Here is a southern style drum. Sizzortail. See if you can tell the difference.
A good dancer will know and be able to dance to both styles of singing. As dancers the drum guides us. We must remain in time with the drum, start and stop with the drum. The drum is our companion without it we cannot dance and thus no powwow.
There are other songs used for different dances. There are grand entry songs, flag songs, intertribal songs, veteran songs, honor songs, contest songs, traditional songs and new songs being created every day. Then you have songs for specific dances, crow hops, sneak-up/ruffle dance, round dance, two step, and trick songs etc.
Readers will get a chance to hear these songs and see these dances in upcoming posts.
Traditionally only males would sit at the drum and sing. Women would stand behind singers and add their voices. At powwows this tradition appears to be falling away. I am seeing more and more young women also sitting on the drum. We are not stuck in the old ways. Our cultures and traditions are alive, growing and changing. It is a sign of our health as a people.
Children are always welcome around the drum, they are our future and can be seen sitting on singers laps. I have seen children sleep under the drums. They are always encouraged to pick up a stick and learn. We grow up with these songs, the songs are a pure essence of who we are. To know our songs is to know us.
We are alive… we raise our voices in song! We are not forgotten! Come and hear us.