Heartbeat of the People: Music and Dance of the Northern Pow-wow by Tara Browner

John Nettles

the members of First Nation manage to maintain their sense of humor, bantering with wit and aplomb that go a long way toward reminding us that there are a few oases of ideas to be found in the vast wasteland of spam, scams, and bad sex that cyberspace has become.

Heartbeat of the People

Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Length: 163
Subtitle: Music and Dance of the Northern Pow-wow
Price: $29.95 (US)
Author: Tara Browner
US publication date: 2002-03

The members of the First Nation listserv, an Internet discussion group dealing with current affairs primarily in the Northern Native American community, exemplify the idea of smiling through one's rage. For all the issues constantly being batted around there -- living conditions on reservations that parallel those in the Third World, the frustrating pursuit of land-lease monies owed to Indians for decades and sitting undisbursed in Treasury Department coffers, the grave-robbing exploits of university archaeologists, the ongoing Kafkaesque saga of Leonard Peltier -- the members of First Nation manage to maintain their sense of humor, bantering with wit and aplomb that go a long way toward reminding us that there are a few oases of ideas to be found in the vast wasteland of spam, scams, and bad sex that cyberspace has become.

Still, even this esoteric preserve of Indian culture is afflicted by the continual intrusion of ignorant white people. These tend to fall into two categories, correspondents who want to pick a fight over whether or not Native Americans have real grievances, and worse, pie-eyed New Agers who wish to "learn the sacred way of harmony with the earth" or such similar crap, as if every Indian is a shaman just waiting like the Great Pumpkin for a wasichu with enough mushy sincerity to impart the medicine of a thousand years to. Needless to say, the shrift given these folks is short but damn funny.

Such intrusions, however, amply illustrate the heart of the continuing conflict between Native America and white culture, namely the problem of image. Despite our relative sophistication in other areas, for some reason we cannot seem to shake the popular images of the Indian derived from the movies, whether it be the bloodthirsty savage, the firewater-sloshing layabout, or in these post-Dances with Wolves days, the tragically doomed mystic warriors who could have taught us so much if we hadn't wiped them out in the name of manifest destiny. Thus, although many of us flock to reservation casinos, pay through the nose for turquoise jewelry, or take great pains to let people know that we are one-sixteenth Cherokee or whatever, we seem to have lost sight of the fact that Indians are real people with bills to pay and children to feed, and that their respective cultures have a life beyond spectacle for the tourist trade. If we are ever to put the sins of our fathers to rest, it is high time we shelved liberal guilt and stopped regarding Native Americans as cigar-store Indians.

Tara Browner's Heartbeat of the People, an examination of modern dance forms among the Lakota and Anishnaabeg peoples, is a good place to start. Of Choctaw blood and an ethnomusicologist at UCLA, Browner is uniquely qualified to provide this glimpse into the cultural environment of the pow-wow, once defined as a formal gathering to perform healing ceremonies and now denoting a celebration of music and dancing with competitions. Moreover, Browner is an active participant on the pow-wow circuit and her book, while often heavy with the jargon of her discipline, is nonetheless warmer than previous studies of Northern Indian musical traditions by detached observers.

The first part of the book is devoted to an overview of this prior scholarship, and it is clear that even those scholars who have undertaken close study of Native Americans in the past were muddled by a Eurocentric filter on their understanding. As Browner summarizes the work of her predecessors, she notes a recurring and faulty tendency to regard Indian music as somehow less than Western music by dint of its reliance on percussion and voice, the music of primitives -- equating trappings with sophistication, the same sort of condescension that drove the campaign to Christianize Indians. Browner points out what should have been obvious all along, that Native music contains levels of complexity and precision that render more elaborate instrumentation superfluous, and that all Indian music does not in fact sound alike. She elaborates on this point with a detailed analysis of differences between what she calls the "Northern" music of the Great Plains tribes and the "Southern" music of the tribes of Oklahoma and parts adjacent, taking care to document leading theories on the migration of the various forms. She does the same with dance and costume styles, which are equally important both in terms of ritual and modern competition, painstakingly detailing similarities and differences between traditions. Admittedly this can get rather tedious for those of us who are neither ethnomusicologists nor anthropologists, but that is no fault of Browner's, and those who undertake Native Studies with any degree of seriousness will benefit from her attention to detail.

The second half of the book deals with the culture of the modern pow-wow -- again, this is limited to the Sacred Hoop tradition of the Lakota and the Sacred Fire tradition of the Anishnaabeg, and Browner acknowledges the enormous range of unexplored territory out there -- through interviews with dancers and musicians on the circuit. It is here that Browner's scholarship meets its practical application, as she speaks with performers about the rigid parameters of traditional music, dance, and costuming, and how successive generations attempt to walk the line between the demands of ritual and the need for individual expression. We see how new music is composed by various Drums -- the pow-wow equivalent of rock bands -- when very often the younger singers are otherwise ignorant of the language they're singing in. We see how whole families travel hundreds of miles every summer to compete in various festivals throughout the heartland for relatively little monetary reward. And most importantly we see how the pow-wow functions to keep the ritual life of these Native Americans vigorous despite the immense pressures, both from within and without, to calcify. As one dancer, a Potawatomi (Anishnaabeg) woman active in Michigan, states when speaking of her particular dance garb,

A lot of our white hobbyist friends will say, "Well that's not Potawatomi, Sydney!" And I'll say, "But it's a gift from my relatives. I'm going to honor that by wearing it. I don't care if it isn't Potawatomi."
We know who the people are who enjoy pow-wows because they're wearing things that we know were gifts. They're not wearing things that are just made specifically for one tribe like in a museum, which is fine. We're not museum people! We're living, evolving, cultural people.

While Browner's book is essentially a study in modern ethnomusicology, it is in the voices of her interview subjects that it really shines. The fact that her subjects are all old friends of hers -- and she makes no bones about this -- enhances the work rather than detracts from it in the name of academic objectivity, making it warm and textured and above all human, qualities that most scholarly works sorely lack. Heartbeat of the People is a slim work, to be sure, but it serves a vital purpose, reminding us that Native Americans are not the cardboard cutouts that the dominant culture would seemingly like them to be, neither "museum people" nor caricatures on the Late Late Show. With more work like Tara Browner's, perhaps the rest of us can come to terms with Native America as it actually exists and give its people the honest shrift they deserve. Perhaps then there will be a bit less rage to smile through.

[Also highly recommended are Michael Apted's documentary Incident at Oglala: The Leonard Peltier Story and the books of Vine Deloria, Jr., especially Custer Died for Your Sins and God is Red.]

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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