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Native voices series starts with a boom

Fish Martinez gave a presentation about Native American Music on Tuesday.
Photo Provided by Anthony Davis
Fish Martinez gave a presentation about Native American Music on Tuesday.

Fish Martinez grew up with Native American dancing and music. He started “fancy dancing” at the University of Oregon Longhouse pow wows when he was 5-years-old and can’t remember a time when Native music was not part of his life.

Martinez shared some of his experiences Tuesday with UCC students in the first of a series of presentations by local Native Americans. The presentation marked the end of a self-imposed hiatus for Martinez, who had not drummed for two years out of respect and mourning for his father.

Martinez began with a traditional song, gifted to him from the McNair family of the Klamath tribe. One student described it as “hauntingly beautiful.” The drum beat and the cadence of the voice pulsated with emotion and implied meaning. In many Native American cultures, when a song or a story is gifted to someone, it must be passed on exactly as it was given. In this way, important aspects of life contained within the song are accurately passed on to later generations.

In pop-music, lyrics play an important part in the meaning of the song. Many of the songs that Martinez performs instead make use of vocables, or sounds with no particular meaning. The intertribal musical style often uses vocables rather than comprehensible words. Some popular Native groups of this style include the Black Lodge Singers and High Noon. There are Native American songs which utilize words but they tend to have their own distinct sound.

Martinez studiedĀ  music theory at Southern Oregon University . Although some studies of Native American music exist, few attempt to thoroughly break down the mechanics of what makes a song uniquely Native. In the traditional Native style, a song starts out with the lead, or the main phrase of the piece, followed by the second, which is usually a variation on the lead. A song will usually have at least four verses, each punctuated by the heartbeat, a group of strong down beats signaling the beginning of the next verse.

For groups of people with a strong collective culture, tradition can be very important. Martinez related a story about a time when he asked his father, “Why are you using that epoxy glue? I don’t think it’s traditional.” Martinez’s father responded by asking him, “What’s traditional? These Nike’s that I’m wearing are traditional. If someone would have had these materials back then, someone probably would have made them.” Martinez was making the point that a culture cannot remain alive and vibrant without adapting to new circumstances.

Not all Martinez’s songs were serious, one began with the familiar refrain, “Is it a bird? No! Is it a plane? No! Oh my gosh, it’s Mighty Mouse!” The song can be found on Black Lodge’s album, “Kids’ Pow-Wow Songs,” which is full of native music for young children. Martinez explained how Native musicians are pushing on the limits of what has been done in the past. They each bring innovations to the style, creating new music that is still relevant to people today.

There are a number of small items attached to Martinez’s drum. Each one was given to Martinez as a gift from someone who was touched by his music. Whenever Martinez plays his drum, he likes to share some of these stories with his audience. There was an old-fashioned key attached to one of the drum’s handles which was given to Martinez by a boy after a performance. The boy explained that his family’s home had burned down, and the key was the only thing that he had been able to find in the ruins. Martinez related that he never knows how his music will inspire another person.

To finish, Martinez played a type of song called a Sneak Up. It told a story of a warrior who was tracking an enemy or prey and at the end of each verse, he would look around the ground for tracks until he found them and the next portion of his journey would begin. At the end of the third verse, there was no pause, the warrior had found a clear trail and was on his way. This is a sacred song, and if it were played in a pow wow, the audience would all stand and remove their hats. One by one, as the song played, the audience stood in respect.

Five additional Native speakers will be visiting UCC over the coming term between May 22nd and June 6th.