American music is a rich tapestry of historical elements, often evident in contemporary music. The White Stripes channel Delta blues with Detroit garage; bluegrass elements figure into almost every alt-country (or y'all-ternative) outfit's output; New Orleans jazz is co-opted by post-prog rockers like the Mars Volta. But rarely do you see Native American music -- certainly this continent's oldest musical genre -- intermingled with rock 'n' roll, blues, country, or other more modern forms.
It does exist, though, and one of the musicians at the forefront of the Native mash-up, Keith Secola, lives right here in the Valley. Secola can only be described as a national treasure, but most folks around here have no clue about this rare cultural anomaly, despite his having played the opening ceremonies of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics and being featured on Fresh Air on NPR.
Native Americana, officially released this Friday, September 9, is Secola's fifth full-length album -- a bouillabaisse of styles, all integrated with American Indian flourishes, whether it's the rhythm, the flute, or Secola singing in Ojibwa, as he does on his cover of Woody Guthrie's "This Land."
Secola, whose face is craggy but gentle, with long black hair that's showing a little gray, and aviator sunglasses, is from the Ojibwa tribe and grew up in northern Minnesota, arriving here in the Valley in 1984 with his wife, who's from the Ute tribe. While still in Minnesota, where he graduated from the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis, Secola worked as a language instructor, teaching Ojibwa in federal programs.
Once he arrived in Arizona, he worked as an Indian education specialist. "It was a good karma job," he says. "We helped secure millions of dollars for the special culturally related educational needs of Indian children. I did that for a while, then got to the point where I decided children will listen to a guy with a guitar case coming into the classroom rather than a briefcase. I just switched cases, that's all."
Before he dedicated himself to music full time, Secola had recorded a three-song cassette sampler with his song "NDN Kars" featured on it, which would later become his first minor hit, and his signature song. "I played at this Denver powwow kind of thing; we'd made about a hundred of [the cassettes], and I sold them all and saw how it could work. It was a cottage success."
Since then, Secola has been playing across the world when he's not recording his albums, which he releases himself on his Akina Records imprint (often with his Wild Band of Indians backing him, which has a revolving-door membership). He flirted with the major-label scene back in the '90s, but nothing came of it. "It just kind of fizzled -- 'how do we market Indian rock 'n' roll?' they wondered.
"Having to do it myself was sort of a saving grace. Without their non-support, I wouldn't have gotten so far believing in myself."
Secola's toured Europe and plays nearly every weekend in different cities around the country and in Canada, but you're lucky to see him play here in the Valley once a year or so. "You have to create a big market," he explains. "You can only do so much in a city. You create a circuit and play the same bars week after week going from one suburb to the other, and there ain't that many clubs in this town. You start to become taken for granted because you're always there." He's planning a CD release party for Native Americana toward the end of the year, possibly at a casino.
"Wild Javelinas" makes two appearances on Native Americana, one a darker, end-of-album reprise. Secola says the song is about his "love affair with the earth -- the marginal creatures, the misunderstood desert pigs." In the reprise, the javelinas are drinking tequila, stealing identities, and borrowing your wife's car. "It's a song for the underdogs. Like the bottom feeders of Tempe, the people you see out in the middle of the day when no one should be out in the heat."
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"Humility and the gospel of love are the things I want to teach on this record," he adds, pointing out the song "Barnswallow," a paean to the humble creature that sounds slightly like "Danke Schoen."
Original Doors drummer John Densmore appears on the record on "Sea of Cortez" and "Kokopelli Blues" -- just one of Secola's influential fans, who have also included Jerry Garcia and filmmaker Jim Jarmusch. On "Kokopelli Blues," where Secola approximates a Tom Waits-esque blues howler, Densmore's trapwork is instantly recognizable.
"He hadn't been in the studio since the Doors," Secola said proudly. "We rolled him out and he came in the studio with the same kit he played on 'Light My Fire.' It was fun singing it to him, too, rehearsing the night before, realizing his process of songwriting included Jim Morrison sitting there bouncing ideas off of him."
Secola probably won't ever get placed in the pantheon of American music near Morrison, but he certainly deserves a spot someplace close by. Native Americana is just further proof that Keith Secola is far more than a niche artist; he's an amalgamation of this country's musical heritage.