Arts & Entertainment

Native American music covers wide variety of genres

Tracy Lee Nelson (right) and the Native Blues jam on stage at the Native American Pavilion at the recent NAMM show in Anaheim.
Tracy Lee Nelson (right) and the Native Blues jam on stage at the Native American Pavilion at the recent NAMM show in Anaheim.
Susan Valot/KPCC

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The NAMM Show, the annual music industry trade show, recognized something old that’s new during its recent run in Anaheim: a Native American Pavilion that featured musicians from tribes across the country.

Here, a flutist makes it sound like a bird is soaring through the pavilion as a couple of NAMM attendees rhythmically strike drums.

This is the sort of sound a lot of people think defines “Native American music.” It still is a tradition in the native community. But that’s not what you’ll hear from guitarist Tracy Lee Nelson.

"I always said I wanted to be like an Indian B.B. King, you know," Nelson says with a hearty laugh. "A blues player. And I said OK, well. Because I don’t think there was anybody out there who really stood out as a native artist."

But Nelson is one of the artists changing that. The former chair of the La Jolla Indian Reservation in northern San Diego County is the lead singer of Tracy Lee Nelson and the Native Blues.

The band is made up of musicians from Southern California Indian reservations.

"We’re modern music, playing the blues," Nelson says. "And it’s funny because I actually joke around about that on stage, too, as I say, 'Well, I know we’re Indian. You guys were probably expecting us to be wearing our little buckskin skirt and stuff, and a feather in the hair and stuff. But no, it’s changed. We don’t live in tee-pees anymore, either.'"

Nelson grew up on a reservation listening to the Beatles. He says technology has helped push Native American music onto new ground by bringing in all sorts of musical influences.

"When I’m going to different reservations, I’m noticing there’s reggae Indian groups. There’s Blackfire, who’s like a heavy, heavy metal, kind of like Lamb of God," Nelson says. "And I was like, wow, this is really something.

"Because before, I thought it was just kind of like – when I grew up, it was more country and stuff, but now it’s evolved to the new, new music now. And I think that’s what helped, too – the iPods and you got all the computers and everybody’s connecting, you know. And YouTube, that’s a huge connection to the world."

Nelson says that’s way beyond what you could get from a radio in a remote reservation home back in the day.

Nelson says his music carries a special message, with songs like “Native No Respect,” “Poor Little Indian” and “At Peace With No Honor.”

"The main thing with our music is not to be forgotten, as a native people because I think a lot of people don’t know we even existed," he says. "I mean, now gaming is coming into play and people are like, 'Oh yeah, there are Indians still here.'"

But musician Micki Free says he doesn’t want to be known just as a Native American musician.

"We don’t pigeon ourselves as native musicians. We are musicians that just happen to be Native American," he says.

Free played worked with the disco group Shalamar – and won a Grammy for the song “Don’t Get Stopped in Beverly Hills” on the “Beverly Hills Cop” soundtrack.

He now works for the Seminole Tribe in Florida, trying to get kids on the reservations into music.

He travels from tribe to tribe, holding “American Idol”-like talent searches each year. Free says the winner gets signed to a record contract with Native Music Rocks Records.

"On the reservation, you have sports and you used to have drugs. Almost that was it, basically," Free says. "So now what we’re trying to do is now there’s middle ground: The arts. So now you have sports, you have the music business, the performing arts and the bad stuff over here, but we don’t want you to go there. So stay over here."

Free and other Native American musicians say they hope their success will inspire the next generation to follow them in the music business, whether it’s traditional native music, heavy metal or the blues.

This is the second story in a two-part series.