(To buy: http://www.creative-native.com/)
BBC Prize-winning Review
New York: Clearwater Festival and Highline Ballroom – 17th/18th June 2007
Royal Albert Hall May 8th 1966.The place is packed – with that buzz that signals something special. The lights go down. The buzz stops. Expectancy now charges the darkness with energy. The spot slices the length of the Hall to pick out a Native American woman looking tiny in the vastness of the famous stage. As if in answer to the beam of light that has found her, her voice shafts back, filling every inch of space in the beautiful old building with a power that could rattle Albert’s monument immediately opposite in the park. The only voice I’ve ever heard like it is Piaf. But this is unique in its own way. When a college friend played me one of her songs my first reaction was “who the hell is that?” not quite sure what to make of it. We assimilate the commonplace easily and quickly. The unique has to be approached slowly. Only ever happened to me twice before – Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. Fitting company for the extraordinary Buffy Sainte-Marie.
The next two hours is more a journey than a concert. Through the history of the First Nation people who lived for millennia in a continent before Columbus had the temerity and ignorance to call it the ‘New’ World under the delusion that he had discovered something. I don’t remember all the songs now, though I think ‘Pineywood Hills’ kicked off. The range of music was breathtaking – raunchy rock, love songs as strong as they were delicate, and a fusion of ancient Native American chants with folk and rock idioms which were themselves in a feverish state of change and exploration in 1966. And of course the best known anti-war song ever written, ‘Universal Soldier’. But two songs, haunting laments, stuck in my memory then and through all the years between – ‘Now That The Buffalo’s Gone’ and the heartrending ‘My Country ‘Tis of Thy People You’re Dying’. ‘My Country’ has not a shred of ‘victimhood’ in it. It is the most powerful, eloquent cry of injustice I have ever heard. It is rooted in pride, honour and truth – not complaint, or even the strident voice of rights. As with many songs on this very special evening, it is suffused with passion and rage and the bewilderment of injustice. As we sat, coming down from the intensity of the past two hours, the friend beside me smiled ruefully and said “I surrender”. Just so.
Upstate New York, Croton Harmon – 17th June 2007. Forty-one years on. A beautiful 1 hour train ride from Grand Central along the shores of the Hudson. Folk legend and tireless ecological activist Pete Seeger set up the Great Hudson River Revival programme almost 40 years ago and its annual non-profit two-day festival (clearewater.org) attracts up to 15,000 people over two days each June to a programme of music, dance, story-telling and environmental education.
My first time at the festival and for a special reason. In 2001, browsing my local record store, I noticed the name I knew from 35 years before. With a striking cover picture – Buffy Sainte-Marie – ‘Coincidence and Likely Stories (CALS)’. I bought it on spec and it blew me away. A superb fusion of native american powwow percussion and evocative chants with solid rock, folk lyricism and passionate political commitment. Buffy, now Dr Sainte Marie, courtesy of a PhD in Fine Art and two degrees, in eastern philosophy and Education, took my breath away in realisation that the passion of her commitment, so striking all those years ago, was as powerful as ever. Now served by an even more wide-ranging musical eclecticism and the rare lyrical intelligence that so attracted me to her work in the first place.
What a day. We had already seen Pete Seeger, now 88 years strong, as ever protesting against stupid wars – then Vietnam, now Iraq. My wife Kate and I waited in the beautiful late afternoon sunshine that lit up the Hudson river in a dazzling display of light. She was intrigued to know what exercised me so much.
Having once played the small folk venues of Greenwich Village, Buffy was performing in New York for the first time in 10 years. Much of her income from her music in the 40 years between London and Clearwater had been used to set up the Nihewan Foundation and its Cradleboard education project. In this, young Native Americans are given the chance to learn traditional school subjects like science and geography within the context and through examples of their own culture not that of the ethnically white-biased US school system. They also learn the real truth of their First Nation history instead of the lies and distortions of the state system.
“Ladies and Gentlemen – Buffy Sainte Marie.” Forty years vanished in an instant. The same immediately recognisable, unmistakable figure appeared, wearing a deep brown stylish trouser suit dominated by a Plains Indian warrior breastplate topped by an enormous abalone choker. A fitting mixture: a child born to the Cree, adopted and raised in Maine and now a life-long voice and activist for First Nation Americans and aboriginal peoples everywhere. A conduit through which flows the spirit of the ancient voice of her people. Just as the holes in a flute and the fingers of the musician take and change the breath of life that flows through them into music, so this artist has sent the call of her ancient culture around the world to receive echoes of recognition from something deep in people that transcends ethnicity.
‘Pineywood Hills’: as strong, evocative and powerfully sung as 40 years before. The rousing ‘Fallen Angels’ follows, the first of many tracks from ‘CALS’ that attacks the distortion of values arising from corporate greed and power, especially of energy companies whose exploitation of uranium on Native American land pollutes and kills the true First Americans that occupy it. Then with the same target – a new song, the anthemic ‘AIM Elijah’ likening corporate avarice to ‘Keshagesh’ – the greedy-guts puppy that wants everyone’s share of the food. A tap on my shoulder. Kate, who has been dragged over 3,000 miles for this moment says “now I get it!” Over the years the passion has not dimmed but the anger and rage is now channelled. There is a realisation that we are all products of the culture that bore us but that we have choices. We can reach beyond our roots to understand through a sense of justice, the pain of others. The sense that beyond race and culture we are human beings, first last, and always. That our destiny is to celebrate, not fear diversity. Learn from, not attack ‘otherness’. We are not born strangers – we learn how to hate.
The serious-minded 25 year-old Buffy I saw at the Albert Hall has struggled with the reality of her people’s plight throughout the 40 years between and in improving it has developed a wry, ironic, wise way of seeing the world that eschews victimhood and complaint. She knows better than most that change is a long game and justice an ideal we just can’t ever give up on. Her sheer delight in her culture and her music glows. Her warmth invites us – come see what we are about, how we deal with this beautiful but scary world. Just look and listen and you will know something of us. She has fun with ‘Indian Cowboy’ and wryly observes about the ancient mouthbow with which she accompanies herself on ‘Cripple Creek’ that it took musicians to realise that you can use a “weapon to make music.”
For the fans – the Oscar-winning, haunting ‘Up Where We Belong’. Then as a tribute to Leonard Peltier, shamefully imprisoned for an unproven crime almost since I last saw Buffy at the Albert Hall – 35 years – the powerful, acappella ‘Relocation Blues’ by Floyd Red Crow Westerman whose records can’t get release in the US because they are critical of the Government. (But are available on amazon.com). The powwow infused popular song ‘Darling Don’t Cry’ references Buffy’s roots in what we call Canada. ‘Priests of The Golden Bull’ takes on corporate America in a rolling, haunting, talking style I cannot categorise having never heard anything like it before. ‘Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee’ expresses the passion evinced by a century-old massacre of Native American men women and children, the injustice of which is being repeated, in less bloody but deeply damaging ways every day in modern America. It is heir to earlier Buffy songs like ‘Buffalo’ and ‘My Country’. ‘Cho Cho Fire’ simply rocks and Buffy has a ball with it. ‘Starwalker’ is a show stopper and celebrates the extraordinariness of human beings – of any ethnicity.
Cliff Eberhardt’s beautiful, plaintive love song ‘Goodnight’ closes and as she leaves the stage, I recall a remark early on when Buffy said before she became a singer she was a teacher; they guy next to me called out “you still are.” Just so.
Downtown New York – Highline Ballroom – 18th June 2007
Buffy’s audience at Clearwater were united by a concern for the environment, which thankfully embraces the left/right Republican/Democrat spectrum. Some of the political comments left some stony-faced, perhaps in disapproval of the whoops and hollers of others of their fellow-citizens more than the songs to which they universally responded. But in downtown Manhattan the following night not a stone’s throw from Greenwich Village and the Chelsea Piers, Buffy was amongst her ‘other’ people – liberal, bohemian, articulate, unconventional, savvy New Yorkers. The Highline Ballroom, like a converted factory almost invisible beside a neon-lit Deli, had a great atmosphere and the minute she walked on stage she connected. The young folk-singer who penned ‘Universal Soldier’ in Toronto’s Purple Onion Coffee House 40 years before was back in the excitement and vitality of mid-60’s New York, where her exact contemporary Bob Dylan was beginning to change the way we all looked at ourselves and the world. All the Clearwater songs were there. Plus others: ‘Cod’ine’, an ironic personal lament warning that addiction is in the person not the substance abused. The much recorded, beautiful love song ‘Until It’s Time for You To Go’ – another one everyone knows but few know Buffy wrote. A standing ovation. Three encores and this powerful, distinctive artist left them wanting more and the tantalising news that a new CD is in the offing. The first since ‘CALS’ in 1991.
Some artists peak early, their best work flowing from their youthful imagination and vitality. Others retain those qualities but keep on developing, perfecting and deepening their insights on life in the light of their experience. To this listener, (OK you’ve guessed it, fan – but I hate the word), Buffy Sainte-Marie, like a fine wine just gets better. The passion, the commitment, not just to her people but to a world threatened by fear of ‘otherness’ and the cancer of corporate power, is manifestly still there and expressed though an extraordinary musical eclecticism. Lyrical, poetic, political, melodic and just plain raunchy. That’s some mix. Watch out for the new CD. If she comes to the UK – don’t miss a one-off, multi-gifted performer with a passion for her art that runs much deeper than fame or fortune. Along with just a very few other artists – she is simply unique.
(References: creativenative.com: cradleboard.org; nihewan.org)
Filed under: Concert