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Native American Folk Music
While scholars debate the exact date of the arrival of Native Americans to the
Americas, they are generally believed to have arrived more than
10,000 years ago. There is no disagreement that they came across
a land bridge between Asia and Alaska in several waves of migration
and quickly spread south and east. By the time the Europeans
arrived in North America, there were over 1,000 separate culture
groups, each with its own language and distinct customs.
This phenomenal cultural diversity would be impossible to represent adequately here. However, some common characteristics across Native American groups are worth describing. Because of the size of North and South America, this discussion will focus on the music of Native Americans in North America, excluding those living in the Arctic. From this point forward, the word "Native American" will refer to the original inhabitants of what is now the United States and lower Canada.
There are several very general characteristics that can be traced through the music traditions of many Native American cultures. First, music performance is often connected to spirituality or life-cycle events. In many cultures music is an integral part of religious ceremonies that are crucial to prayer, worship, and often healing. For example, yebichai songs of the Nightway ceremony of the Navajo people calls upon the gods to bring supernatural power and blessing to help cure a sick person.
In the truest sense of the word, Native American music is folk music in that most Native American cultures believe music to be communal property. Music is not thought to be composed; rather it is believed to come from ancestral or natural spirits through visions or in dreams. Some songs are also thought to have been created in the early days of the tribe, but other songs could simply be heard and then borrowed from other tribes. Most song learning is by rote, though there are a few isolated instances of the use of mnemonic devices such as music boards among the Ojibway of the North Central Plains.
Musically, the focus of most Native American music traditions is the voice. While instruments play varying roles, the voice and song text are held most highly. With very few exceptions, harmony is non-existent in Native American music. Many traditions feature a leader and group, or even a more formal call-and-response style. Last, melodies are generally based on scales of three to six notes.
There are some broader regional variances that deserve mention. The vocal style of Native American music of the Plains-the area extending west from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains that includes the Sioux, the Crow, the Cheyenne, and the Kiowa-is very distinctive. Using a high-pitched, strained vocal style, vocalists sing melodies that begin in tessitura and then jump an octave or more to the upper limits of the head voice without going into falsetto. The melody then falls in a "terraced" contour. In addition, the pitch often pulses, especially at the end of phrases. In the cultures of the Eastern Woodlands such as the Iroquois and the Delaware, call-and-response is prevalent as well as a more relaxed, open singing style. Of course, there are many more differences than can be outlined here-even within regions and even cultures.
As in many cultures around the world, dance is intimately linked to music performance, and is an integral part of the ceremonies and festivals of many Native American groups. Dancers often perform in groups following a circular pattern, and they often carry shakers or wear jingly beads or bells on their clothing. Movement usually reflects the rhythm of the music, though the musicians and singers will often adapt their performance to accommodate the movement of the dancers.
Today, one event at which the general public can see and even participate in Native American dance is the powwow. Powwows, such as the Gathering of Nations in New Mexico, are intertribal events held across the country at which members of different nations come together to perform, watch, and just talk and relax. In the twentieth century, powwows have contributed to the sharing and even consolidation of music and dance styles among Native Americans.
Native American traditions generally only use membranophones (drums), idiophones (rattles and shakers), and some aerophones (winds). Melody instruments are limited to aerophones such as flutes and, in limited cases, horns or single-reed winds. Flutes can be made from wood, cane, bone, or bark. The most widespread flute is end-blown and made from wood. These flutes are easily recognized by the highly decorated piece of wood attached near the top that serves to redirect airflow. Flutes are almost exclusively solo instruments.
There is a great variety of percussion instruments, including drums and rattles. The single-headed frame drum is the most widespread drum among Native Americans. It is held in one hand and hit with a stick using the other. Double-headed drums featured at nearly all powwows today appear to only have developed in only a few isolated instances. Some scholars suggest that European bass drums were the inspiration for these drums. Rattles also appear in nearly every Native American culture. There is an amazingly diverse range of rattles; they can be tied to clothing, sticks with attached beads or shells, or containers with pebbles or seeds inside.
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