The battered '84 Blazer parked in Keith Secola's driveway looks out of place in his suburban Tempe neighborhood. Yet it's fitting that the vehicle is there--it could be the model for Secola's nearly famous song "Indian Cars."
That single song--a fusion of folk-rock, Indian chanting and the heartbeat pulse of the powwow drum--has colored his career for 14 years, changing the direction of his songwriting and earning him faithful audiences on Indian reservations from the Grand Canyon to Hudson Bay as well as a cult following in Europe.
Secola's mother was an Anishinabe Indian (better known as Chippewa in the United States and Ojibwa in Canada), his dad was an Italian immigrant and, like his wheels, he looks a bit out of place in placid suburbia. His long, straight hair, held in place by a bandanna, frames a full, craggy face. The left side of his lower lip droops slightly, giving him a hard-bitten edge. His tough looks belie a gentle manner, though, the way his Tempe home masks its Indian ownership (although inside are such giveaways as a wood flute, an adobe oven and an Ojibwa war club).
Secola's signature song, "Indian Cars," begins with an insistent, pounding beat and a wiry electric-guitar line that sounds like rock 'n' roll, but not quite. As Secola coaxes a melody derived from an Indian chant out of his guitar, it becomes clear the insistent beat is powwow drumming. He sounds like an Indian Bruce Springsteen as he sings "My car is dented/The radiator steams/One headlight don't work/The radio can scream/I got a sticker that says 'Indian power'/I stuck it on my bumper/That's what holds my car together."
The lyrics and sound were taken to heart by Native audiences the way that "Born to Run" galvanized white working-class listeners, and the song got airplay on college and Native American radio. (Enough so that Norman Jewison incorporated the song into his Indian-themed movie Dance Me Outside in 1994.)
"He's right on in his lyrics," says Tim Giago, an award-winning columnist for Indian Country Today, based in Rapid City, South Dakota. "You almost have to be a reservation Indian to understand what he's talking about. Among ourselves, we say the best mechanics are Indian mechanics because they can take baling wire and fix anything."
Giago, who grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation, notes that his own paper held a contest in which readers were asked to send in photos of the ugliest Indian car. "It's a big joke!" Giago says.
Secola says the lyrics to "Indian Cars" may sound funny, but they're about "the richness of being poor." He sees the ironic humor as a means of deflecting the bitter realities of poverty by celebrating the spirit of survival. "You operate with what the environment gives you, and then you truly live as a spontaneous man," Secola says.
A performer who likes to lend his services to environmental and social causes, Secola seems politically aware. So, does he worry that the song could reinforce racist stereotypes?
"You have to, as an artist, sometimes rely on the intelligence of people," Secola says. "I don't really worry about that because I think that people have to come to their own understandings of music and art."
He employs a similar ironic humor in calling his touring group Wild Band of Indians, and in the song "Fry Bread," another popular tune.
Secola admits that one reason he attracts listeners in Europe is because American Indians are a novelty there. "That makes them curious enough to come out and hear Native performers. Then, I think, the passion and the likability of the music takes over. It has to be more than a novelty to have staying power. You can't just show up in your chief outfit. That's something I want to stay away from--'chiefing!'"
But isn't presenting a song like "Indian Cars" to an audience that far off the rez a bit like chiefing--pandering to the crowd with a stereotypical image?
"We're not wearing beads and feathers," Secola says. "We're deeper than beads and feathers."
The success of "Indian Cars" helped Secola establish his own record company, Akina, in 1988. He has sold more than 10,000 albums in Europe and hopes to sell another 4,000 this summer.
Yet the Tempe resident remains a well-kept secret here in the Valley. There are two reasons for this: 1) He doesn't play the four-set-a-night bar-gig game, the primary route to local stardom; and 2) The cult popularity of "Indian Cars" hasn't translated into a mainstream hit or recording contract, although, at age 39, he still holds out hope for a hit record.
He says that although he'd welcome the money that accompanies a hit, it's not his primary motivation. "Ultimately, you want to get your music to where it can be art, where people can buy it, where people can commonly see it," he says.
Still, Secola's work can be pretty eccentric for a mainstream audience. Although he wears his Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Springsteen influences on his sleeve, Secola's addled-by-the-heat quirkiness sometimes recalls Giant Sand and the Meat Puppets. A good example is "ND Waza Bat." Scary in an Ed Wood sort of way, the song recasts kindly Andy of Mayberry as a vampire. "Some people have talked about that song as symbolizing the moral decay of America," Secola says, "but when I was writing it, I was laughing. 'This is stupid! How ridiculous!' But it was fun."
He adds that "ND Waza Bat" is one of Robbie Robertson's favorites. In the credits of Music for "The Native Americans," Robertson, former lead scribe of the Band, thanked Secola for his help on the 1994 project, the soundtrack to a historical documentary.
"I didn't play on the album," Secola explains, "but Robbie did seek my musical advice, which is a real compliment." Neil Young paid him a compliment last year at the Rosskilde Festival in Denmark by inviting Secola and his band to sit onstage during Young's set. Both Young's and Secola's bands played there before 90,000 people.
More recently, the Indigo Girls asked that he open their upcoming show at Mesa Amphitheatre. They had previously asked him to contribute a song to Honor: A Benefit for the Honor the Earth Campaign, a 1996 release on Amy Ray's Daemon Records. His "4 R Ancestors"--a piece that juxtaposes a contemplative English reading with a lively Indian chant--appears on Honor alongside tunes by Rusted Root, Exene Cervenka, Soul Asylum, Matthew Sweet and Bonnie Raitt.
Secola was born in northern Minnesota. "The irony is that an Italian man could teach me certain aspects of being Native," he says, still grieving for his recently deceased dad. "It was a time and place when assimilation went both ways."
Secola began playing music while in junior college, then moved on to the University of Minnesota, from which he graduated in 1982. He taught high school in Hibbing, Minnesota--hometown of Bob Dylan, nee Robert Zimmerman--and continued to pursue music on the side.
Self-taught on harmonica and guitar, he played in blues and rock bands. "I wasn't playing in ethnic bands at the time," he says.
"Indian Cars" soon changed that. He wrote the song in 1983, and the audience response confirmed his own instinct that it was special. Weekend bar gigs playing cover songs were no longer enough. He wanted to continue writing his own music. The lyrics, which told an ethnic story in a folk-rock style, made him realize that he also could blend ethnic musical elements--powwow drumming and Native chants--into his mix of alternative rock, blues and country songs.
In 1984, Secola headed for parts unknown. He met his future wife, Pat McKinley, in Colorado and decided to move to Tempe. Her dad taught at Arizona State University, and "the whole Southwestern thing was making sense," Secola says. The couple has two kids now.
By 1985, he had settled into the Valley's scene, and continued to refine his fusion, trying to "integrate the Indian dance drum into a progressive band." In 1988, he had saved enough from his gigs to set up his own label and released his first cassette collection, Indian Cars.
At the time, he was just hoping to make a little extra money at his gigs. "When you're starting out, you get paid 50 bucks or so [for a gig]. You make more money than that from your tapes, so it was a very good source of hand-to-mouth income. That was how it started, just cottagelike."
He parlayed that income into another cassette, Time Flies Like an Arrow . . . Fruit Flies Like a Banana (1989).
But he put his music on hold after being diagnosed with a brain tumor. It was successfully removed, but it had damaged nerves in his face and left him unable to play harmonica. (It also explains the droopy lip.) He took up the wood flute to replace the harmonica. The flute, which proved therapeutic, added another Indian music element to his sound.
He issued one more cassette, Acoustic Aroma (1991), before releasing his first CD, Circle, in 1992. Circle, a sampler of the cassettes, marked the first time that "Indian Cars," rechristened "NDN Kars," appeared on CD. The German label Normal issued a 2,000-copy album release of a Secola concert in Hamburg called 4 R Ancestors in 1994 and followed up with the studio album Wild Band of Indians in 1995. Secola hopes to make a deal to release Wild Band of Indians stateside soon.
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All of his albums were recorded in Tempe, and they've featured such cream Valley musicians as Hans Olson, Joe Myers and Rena Haus. Secola's Band of Indians is a changeable unit, but drummer-chanter Moontie Sinquah has usually been on board.
Although the music on Secola's albums is eclectic, Secola wants to focus on the rock edge.
"We have likability because we have a lot of danceability. People think of Native bands being all esoteric and nice and New Age, but I want to bring it into the rock age."
Keith Secola is scheduled to perform on Monday, June 30, at Mesa Amphitheatre, with the Indigo Girls. Showtime is 7 p.m.