In Conversation with Tara Browner
An interview with the author of Heartbeat of the People
Molly Sheridan: How do you feel that Native American music fits with the larger group of Americans writing music today?
Tara Browner: Early on when music started being studied through musicology as a field, American Indian music was sort of consigned to ethnomusicology and ethnomusicology began to be considered the study of music throughout the world. It’s strange. Indian music became sort of a foreign thing in its own land. At different times it was justified in a number of textbooks. I think it’s Charles Hamm who says something about how Indian music doesn’t connect up musically with any other styles of American music so he’s not going to talk about it. They come up with this crap and one of my crusades as an academic actually has been to really bring American Indian music into the fold of American music. It’s the first American music. People say that about jazz all the time and it’s not true. I think that it’s very important. And then also, it’s funny, a lot of non-Indian people think that maybe Indians don’t want to be part of American music. They don’t understand that Indians are not only actually a fairly conservative bunch of folks, but third in the armed forces at a higher rate than any other ethnic group and are actually intensely patriotic. What people don’t get is that we don’t have a lot of choice in the matter. We’re not hyphenated in the way anybody else is—we don’t have any place else to go. This is our land and we might as well deal with the way things are and in a way being America to Indians means being part of the land much more than being part of the over-arching American/McDonald’s culture.
Molly Sheridan: Then this will be an opportunity to expose our readers to this issue and the link they may not even realize. In fact I was really surprised when I read in your book about the microtonal intervals the native singers use. What do you think are some of the aspects of Native American music that might surprise outsiders?
Tara Browner: Being out here in LA and being exposed to a lot of film music, I think that most composers don’t realize their idea, their mental image of American music is probably based much more on sort of the Hollywood model, the [sings] duh-de-de-da, than on the reality of what native music is. I have done some research and I have friends and people who have inquired into the source of that Hollywood Indian style and from what we can tell, it’s actually what I refer to as a simulated music. There are a number of different source points. One of them is actually in the old Scottish snap. I don’t know if you’ve heard this but when the British were trying to create a pastoral musical tradition, they came up with an idealized music that they thought represented the most primitive people that they knew of, the Scots, and so what happened is this [sings] da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, this whole rhythmic patter of de-da, de-da, de-da, just became literally the primitive pattern. It’s just an amazing thing. It includes a little of the Scot snap, and a little bit of pentatonic music and then it hits a point right at the early part of this century where a lot of the Russian primitivist school feeds into it, and then quite a few of those composers came over here during the war and did an awful lot of film score music and those people took their idea of what was primitive and just slapped it on to Indians in movies. And it’s amazing because I listen to movies and there are very specific motifs. You’re sitting there and you’re watching this black and white movie and you know the Indians are coming because you hear this duun-duun-duun and those kinds of sounds. This is still with us in things like the tomahawk chop, for example, that gets done at the Atlanta Braves games. So getting back to composers, I think that in talking to many, many composers, because I do interact with them here at UCLA and in other places—I actually have a PhD in historical musicology not ethnomusicology—many of them just assume that native music sounds like the stuff they hear at the movies. So I think they would be surprised by the diversity of musical styles in native North America. It’s just tremendous. The different timbres and textures in the music, the fact that the music is oftentimes associated with dance or ritual in some way. There isn’t a big tradition of music just for music’s sake. Another thing that’s happened is that to a certain extent the American Indian flute has become the new pastoral instrument and that’s a strange thing too because people have created this flute spirituality where it wasn’t before. The flute was an instrument that was used mostly by men in courting women. It was actually an instrument with a lot of power because if a man played it right he could make a girl fall in love with him. But it doesn’t have that much to do with nature scenes and things like that. Nevertheless, it’s used to sort of invoke the spiritual and the sacred where it doesn’t really mean that.
Molly Sheridan: I was really struck to when you were writing about how people think that pow-wows should be historically accurate when actually this is a living art form. Today, what is the typical training for a musician who works in native music?
Tara Browner: Well, you know, for the most part people learn it by doing. It’s primarily young men. You do get young women who sing at drums, but that does tend to be more of a northern style thing. But what happens is you go and you listen to the stuff and you have people in your family that sing and you sort of wander around as a little kid learning the songs and humming with them. You sit and someone will give you a stick as a kid and you’ll learn to beat it in time. And then gradually young people will go and listen to the drum group and then eventually they’ll be invited to just sit and they’ll start to play it. What I’m giving you here is the sort of traditional reservation style of learning it. And you just grow into it, quite literally you grow up through it. One thing that I have noticed is that men who start singing at a later age—you know sometimes you get urban Indian guys who start singing when they’re in their 20s—they never really get the sound right. I think it’s something that you have to start fairly young, kind of pre-teens, and work your voice, especially with men through the vocal change, because if you try to start singing it after that, it just doesn’t seem to quite work. The other thing is that almost all singers are also dancers, and that I think gives them much more of a sense of what’s going on with the music. The thing about pow-wow music—and I think it’s hard to convey this in the book and in western transcription—but pow-wow music actually has a kind of a swing to it and you always know if somebody learned it from tapes or a bunch of guys who really didn’t know what they were doing got together and tried to create a drum group and play because they never quite have that swing.
Molly Sheridan: Is the idea that it is primarily a percussion and vocal music accurate then?
Tara Browner: Ummm….Yes.
Molly Sheridan: What about composition? Is that again mainly an improvisation, created at the moment kind of music?
Tara Browner: No, no, it’s not an improvisation created music. You have to differentiate here because people do not write songs down in western notation. There are a couple of different ways that this can come about. Either a person will sit and work out a text in their head and then set it to music, often going to a friend of theirs. People have different talents, and so if you’re in the drum group and you’re the person who is really good with the words, you’d do that. Then you will sit down with somebody and say, these are sort of the words I want, and that person often will start to hum along the basics of a tune with it, the building blocks, and then together they will create a song. And for people who do it, it’s called making a song. The other thing that can happen is people will sometimes come up with a melody first. They’ll be thinking of things and maybe something a little bit catchy will come in, a fragment of something, and they’ll create a melody. Then they’ll try to work words and vocables and things into it. There is a kind of a pre-existing form template. Let me give you an example. In basic jazz, you have the head and then all the different people sort of solo on it and improvise. This is a situation where you’d sort of have the head and then you’d go do that over and over and over again, so once the song is set and once the group has practiced that, nobody improvises onto that.
Molly Sheridan: I know you write about how you were trained and played percussion classically, but your introduction to pow-wow culture, that happened later in your life?
Tara Browner: Well, you know, I went as a kid with my grandfather, so I did have some exposure to pow-wows and dancing and things like that, but I didn’t get serious about dancing really until I was in my mid-20s.
Molly Sheridan: I was curious though, to your western trained ears what most struck you when you first had more of an involvement with the making of the music and the dance?
Tara Browner: You know there are two different pow-wow styles—sort of northern and southern—and I think that the first thing that really struck me was the intensity of sound that northern singers make—the men, the ones who are really good. People will describe it as a falsetto and it’s not, because a falsetto is a head voice and what this is is taking the chest voice and pushing it to its absolute upper limits which gives it a tremendous amount of projection. I mean remember that these musical styles were developed before microphones. People will mic it now but at the time this was a way to really project out the sound. So the very first thing that struck me was the way that the men were creating the sound. My mother is a professional singer and she was just horrified at that. She would say, ‘They’re going to get nodes on their vocal chords.’ And I really did like sort of the rhythmic aspect of it. But at the same time, you know, people will ask me sometimes, “Why don’t you play with an all-women drum group?” And I have been invited to sit down with men at some drums—some allow women and some don’t—but I’ve always turned it down, because I don’t feel really a need to sort of prove myself as a musician in this particular tradition. I don’t. I like the dancing and I like the social aspects of the dancing. I like feeling the music. I used to play in drum corps, so I don’t have any insecurities about my chops compared to these guys, it’s just not that way. I really enjoy dancing. I enjoy putting together my regalia and accessorizing. I like sitting with my friends. We put up our canopy and we have our lawn chairs and these coolers with wheels on them—you have your pow-wow equipment. And I just like the social aspect of it a lot.
Molly Sheridan: You say that across America there’s a pow-wow within driving distance every weekend. Is that something that an interested outsider is welcome to come to?
Tara Browner: Oh, sure. The thing with pow-wows is that there are only a few things that non-Indians should worry about. A lot of the dances, like the inter-tribal dances, are open to everybody and the MC will say that. I make my students at UCLA get out and dance. There are some dances that are strictly competition or strictly for people who are wearing regalia. The regalia also has templates. So right now I’m dancing what’s called Southern Cloth and when you’re out there dancing in your regalia with the music that goes to that you don’t want someone coming out and doing the boogie-woogie from the audience. But probably about half the dances are open to non-Indians.
Molly Sheridan: How would you go about locating something like that?
Tara Browner: Well, I used to say get news from Indian country but now there are Web sites. There’s, like, powwows.com. They are very easy to find through a Google search. It’s just been amazing because I have found little pow-wows that I wouldn’t necessarily have known about. When you’re an Indian, and you move someplace new, like I moved to Los Angeles, you move here and then you go to a few pow-wows and you meet people and you set up sort of your pow-wow family. Those people are connected out in the community and they tend to know where the pow-wows are.
Molly Sheridan: Since you come from the academic side of this as well, what do you think is needed in terms of scholarship in this area? Do you have any hopes for how that will develop or is it even needed?
Tara Browner: Well, I’ll tell you, people who actually dance and people who sing and things like that, for the most part they know what they’re doing, although it’s always interesting to talk to people who dance in one tradition who are interested in another one. But what I see needed and actually what I’m working on right now—I just got an approval for an edition in the Music in American Life series—is really treating the music with a serious kind of respect. I got into a major argument with a non-Indian scholar who wrote a book that had no transcriptions at all. In fact the book was very difficult for me to deal with because he described, for example, gourd dancing and he got so weird and poetic that I couldn’t follow the action. And then I thought about it and I thought well, I do gourd dancing and I couldn’t follow it, ergo nobody’s going to be able to follow this. So what I think is needed is an academic respect for this stuff. I think that native music should not be treated specially or differently. At the same time, there needs to be a certain amount of respect given to the people who perform it because I have sat down with some of these guys and they can play a beat in a triple pattern and they can sing duple along with it. Now I can sit and I can play two against three with my hands or I can do five against four—I’ve done a bunch of Elliott Carter things—but I cannot play in three and sing in duple meter. Some of these people have tremendous musical skills and I think that’s unrecognized. But I’m working right now on a big transcription of a pow-wow, sitting down and transcribing a whole series of songs as they happened. I’ve already done the recordings of them, and I think what’s important is when transcribing it not to exoticize the music. Western notation works quite well.
Molly Sheridan: Yeah, I was going to ask you about that…
Tara Browner: Here is what you lose with western notation. You lose a little bit of the tonal intricacies. It’s hard to deal with some of the microtones that are going on and some of the ornamentation and you really can’t get the timbre across, but to me western notation is a tremendous vehicle for dealing with rhythm. That’s the strength of it. And that’s one of reasons that I’m interested in creating really, really accurate transcriptions that people can follow. There have been a variety of different kinds and they tend to be either way too sketchy, the “idealized” version, or they look like Frank Zappa‘s Black Page. I’ve seen some like that too. There’s one guy, I won’t give you his name, I really like him a lot, but when he transcribes what should be a quarter note and the singer’s singing [makes vibrato sound] he will actually transcribe the beats in the voice as 32nds, so that’s overly complex. I would like realistic kinds of transcription. To me it’s an important thing, not treating it differently from other music, not exoticizing it, respecting the musicians who are creating it, and respecting them enough that you are working in tandem with them—you don’t want to worship them because they are spiritual and in touch with the earth and you don’t want to think less of them because they are part of an oral tradition, that they don’t write everything down. So you have to come between these different points and accept the music as it’s offered.
Molly Sheridan: What is a good source of examples or transcriptions that have been done for someone who is interested in this music but…
Tara Browner: Well, this is interesting. Victoria Lindsay Levine has just come out with a volume in the series Music in the United States of America. Her volume is “Writing American Indian Music: Historic Transcriptions, Notations, and Arrangements.” And it’s a history of literally the transcription of American Indian music. It’s got everything from the really crappy stuff, it’s got one by me, so you can really see the kinds of things that people do. It’s just a wonderful thing that she’s done.
Molly Sheridan: Because it is an oral tradition and it isn’t written down, but passed down, how much historical material do you think has been held on to and how much has it changed. Do you make that distinction really?
Tara Browner: Well, yes. I know exactly what you’re talking about. One of the interesting things about dealing with American Indian music as compared to dealing with other oral traditions is that Indians were the first kind of lab rats for fieldwork recording back in the 1880s. There are probably more cylinder recordings and actual recordings through the ’30s and ’40s, and old, old stuff of Indians, more than any other group. In fact, the very first field recording was done in 1888 or 1889 by Jesse Walter Fewkes. So unlike a lot of people who say this hasn’t changed, I can prove it has because these recordings are accessible. What they show pretty clearly is that the musical styles are stable. I think the biggest change that is happening in American Indian music right now is that enough musicians have grown up listening to non-Indian music that the pitches used are really moving more into a sort of diatonic system especially with the younger musicians. What the difference is …it wasn’t so much that the pitch was variable within a song, the intervals would be the same, but a song might start on F### or something. Things that you don’t find on the piano, but then it would be in tune with itself. Now what’s happening is there’s so much of a saturation of music that is produced on keyboards and instruments that have a fixed pitch, especially electronic instruments that are not going to change much, so native musicians are just kind of being pulled into that. So that’s one thing that’s happening, a certain kind of pitch stability. And I think that in general there’s less variation on sort of vocal timbre and texture than there used to be. There’s also a little bit of a change in what the audience wants. These are people who listen to the radio and watch TV so the idea, the concept of what’s a really good sound has changed a little bit. It used to be more heterophonic. It really used to be a little bit messier. I call them dirty notes. You’d have two singers that would sing slightly off from one another and you’d get these great beats. When that’s done an interesting thing can happen. You get these overtones that are so strong that it sounds like there is another voice a couple octaves up, this sort of wailing voice, and it’s not the woman’s part, it’s a whole separate thing that happens. People have talked about that as being kind of a spirit voice. That the spirit voice is disappearing as people’s sound concept becomes more western. The place where you get the most authentic old-style music is really mostly on western reservations, places that are a little more isolated. Not southern music. From everything that I could tell going back and listening to recordings, Oklahoma music in general has always been a little bit more monophonic and the vocal style is sort of the manly-man low voice. I’ve heard recordings from Pawnee singers that sound operatic, and that’s from the 1900s. So the southern style is a little bit different, it was more purely monophonic and the voice isn’t pushed as much. What southern singers do that’s interesting is they put in a series of vocal accents and what it ends up creating is…you’ve got the drum beat, the singers, and then these vocal accent lines actually create this separate counter rhythm that sits above the singing. They create kind of a polyrhythm up there with these accents that you don’t get with northern music. That’s something I haven’t written much about but it’s going to be a big part of this musical edition that I’m doing. I’m going to create just an entirely separate line, just one line above the southern stuff because to notate these attack points that they do.
Molly Sheridan: On a side note, I noticed that you used the word Indian freely throughout the book and I know in my mid-western grade school that was pounded out of my vocabulary, that it was politically incorrect, so I was really curious about that…
Tara Browner: When I was going to the University of Michigan I used to go out and do things in the public schools. Actually I’ve done some of that here, too. I put on my regalia and go out. I used the word Indian and I had this third grade teacher pull me aside and say, ‘How dare you use that word?’ and I said, ‘I am an Indian. What are you saying to me?’ Here’s the deal. In private conversations among each other we refer to ourselves as Indians. That’s just the way it is. Native American tends to be more of an academic, politically correct kind of verbiage and I have no problems with it. Here at UCLA we have American Indian studies, other places have Native American studies. I think for a while Native American kind of moved up there to the top and now people are moving back to American Indian or Indian because it’s just easier. It’s like the difference between African-American and black, it’s pretty complex but I just got a to point, I think I explained it in the book, where I decided I’m just going to use everything.