Joanne Shenandoah is a marvel. Chosen as the best female artist for two years running at the Native American Music Awards and winner of numerous other awards for her last two albums, Orenda-Native American Songs of Life (1998) and Matriarch-Iriquois Women’s Songs (1996), Shenandoah possesses an almost impossibly rich and soulful voice that allows her to inject her songs with spirit and meaning. What Cesara Evoria is to fado, Shenandoah is to contemporary Native American music: a voice for the ages, expressing timeless and heartfelt emotions in a moving and original way.
The 12 tracks on Peacemaker’s Journey narrate the story of how peace came to the warring tribes of the Iroquois nations. This makes this a “concept album,” a phrase that in and of itself might prompt one to think that this is a disk to stay away from. In Shenandoah’s capable hands, however, the story of Skennenrahowi’s (the “Peacemaker”) birth and his quest to unite a warring people makes for a compelling song cycle. Shenandoah sings in Oneida, but with the assistance of liner notes that outline Shennenrahowi’s encounters with Aiionwatha (Hiawatha) and the evil Tadodaho, one can follow along and attune oneself to the subtle play of Shenandoah’s phrasing and intonation, which communicate volumes all on their own.
What makes this a particularly strong album is the exceptionally intelligent instrumental arrangements of Tom Wasinger (who co-produced with Shenandoah). In the music, too, enormous amounts are said through the restrained and subtle use of clean rhythms and floating melodies. Wasinger sculpts a haunted, melacholic, yet hopeful sound-scape that forms a perfect compliment to the story that Shenandoah tells. Wasinger employs an extremely wide range of instruments on this album—guitars, zithers, cittern, duduk, kalimba, mandolin, viola, cello, the list goes on. The end result could have been an eclecticism for the sake of eclecticism. But Wasinger is smart enough to use the instruments in turn so as to create a unique mood and signature expression on each track, while still maintaining a consistency of tone and purpose throughout. The sound of Peacemaker’s Journey has more in common with American folk music and bluegrass than it does with the sound that one usually connects with Native American music. (For instance, I was constantly reminded while listening to this of Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, Mark O’Connor’s surprisingly successful collaboration on “Appalachia Waltz”). Though I don’t usually like albums like this, I found Peacemaker’s Journey to be genuinely moving, emotionally powerful and well worth the effort of attentive and repeated listening.