Last week I had the good fortune to attend and perform at the Gathering of Nations in Albuquerque. The media said over 150,000 people were expected to attend. Seeing all those people in ordinary clothes, in tribal regalia and western wear brought home the diversity of native peoples and the creativity and talent. Living in southern New Mexico I don’t really get to spend much time with Indian people and the few that are here I have friendships with. It isn’t like other parts of New Mexico where there are pueblos and reservations and an abundant community. When I lived in Albuquerque I was very involved with Native health issues and met many an “urban” Indian. The Native American flute festivals are mostly non-natives though they have borrowed heavily from romanticized ideas about spirituality, art, etc. Being in the Pit when over 3,000 dancers in full regalia entered the floor with the powerful drumming and singing made some experiences recently seem like Indian Lite. Not to be to dismissive, but you know when you are in the presence of authenticity and it comes from the heart and from a shared language or culture free of superficiality. Exploring my own murky Indian ancestry has made me even more deeply respectful of the self-reliance and reverence for the natural rhythm of creation. I get it.
Browsing the hundreds of vendors is pretty awesome…well I imagine it would be with money that is. I ran into my friend flutemaker Butch Hall and we had a short visit which was wonderful. I send people to his website all the time for his affordable, nice flutes. I heard some awesome music, saw amazing tribal dress, was moved by the drumming (not the drum-circle variety mind you), and hopefully offered something to the atmosphere. My set was ok but the Hang can be a challenge to mic live. I kept getting a horrible low feedback that had the poor sound guys scratching their heads. Not one but two trash trucks came to empty the dumpsters during my set and a 35mph wind came wanting to play my flutes along with me. Sigh… I just had to laugh when the trash trucks came thinking ok I guess I need some humility right? It’s all good. I met some nice people and sold some CD’s thankfully. Earlier in the week I had played at the Tamaya Resort on the Santa Ana Pueblo. Talk about swank. It was like five miles from the road situated above the Rio Grande. As the sunset lit up the Sandia Mountains me and the other locals all looked and nodded knowingly. We know how special this place is. Our ancestors have been here centuries. It is in our blood, skin and bones. I hope that my music reflects that. Indian people call non-Indians who dress and act Indian “Wanabees.” Not a nice term but you know one when you see one. I’ve never wanted to be anyone other than more of who I am. Walking around the Gathering with all those Indians I felt at home but reserved, respectful. It isn’t a zoo and seeing people with cameras just inches from dancers faces I felt sympathy and regard for the patience the dancers had. I’m comfortable in my own skin and know that is a formidable asset. When I smell the ever present Sage and Sweetgrass at flute festivals as ubiquitious as patchouli and a Grateful Dead show I have that patience too. When people throw around the word “Spirit” like it is some cosmic jukebox that “just plays through me” I may silently groan but wish them well nonetheless. Spirituality is such a personal issue and there is a reason it is called a spiritual “practice.” I hope when I play and present concerts that I do some small part in shedding the stereotypes that all Native People are either something out of Dances With Wolves or worse. What I saw at the Gathering just solidifies the idea in my mind that Indians are vibrant, creative, forward thinking and very much alive, thankfully.
I was playing my Hang and Flute on the UNM campus in this cement sculpture called Center of the Universe just to see what the acoustics were like. A guy came up to me and we started talking. He said he is a music producer and wanted to know where I was playing. I said at the Gathering of Nations and he said, “That’s a really odd clash isn’t it? A Swiss instrument at a Native festival?” I said that they are both innovative cultures and pointed out that hip-hop, the bass guitar and keyboards are exactly Indian but were all there too. That is just to point out that preconceptions can run deep and I see them as a chance to inform. It is interesting that while I was playing a homeless guy offered me his sweater and another one in a wheelchair stopped and listened and clapped. Either they thought I was homeless or they could feel my openness. Either way both were real acts of generosity from people who seemingly have little—seemingly.
Check out my new cube! Gathering of Nations 2009