By 2000, Tuba City native and Navajo singer James Bilagody had seen his name recognition in Native American musical circles spread like the proverbial wildfire. In 1998, he contributed vocals to several tracks on Canadian Mohawk and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Robbie Robertson's album Contact From the Underworld of Red Boy, which was nominated for a world music Grammy the following year. On the PBS special Robbie Robertson: Making a Noise, the former Band leader marveled that Bilagody "starts a stuttering sound, in Navajo, an amazing sound. Then all of a sudden he's screaming and moving around, stomping on the floor. It was a phenomenal performance."
On his own, Bilagody had recorded two albums of Native American music -- the most recent one, 2000's Sing for Me, featured his voice and hand drums exclusively -- but he says it began to feel like preaching to the converted and he felt he had to expand his audience base if he wanted the Navajo language to thrive. "I just want to be able to have people accept the Navajo language just for being a language rather than an Indian language," he says. "It's alive, dynamic and it's cool to speak it and understand it."
Given that trajectory, no one could have expected what Bilagody did next -- cut an album with his punk-ass nephew Kris Cremain and his Phoenix-based heavy-rock group the Cremains. The band, which also includes Kris' wife Cremona on bass, cousin Cosmo on drums and friend Avenetti on guitar, hadn't recorded anything that sounded remotely traditional, other than in the mosh-pit, head-banging sense. On paper, the collaboration sounded like an Iron Horse train wreck.
But the stylistic tug of war appears to be working. The resulting album, Sacred Stage, has already snapped up considerable airplay in remote markets like New Mexico and Utah and will soon be added on AIROS (American Indian Radio on Satellite), which reaches as far as Canada. The mere existence of satellite Indian radio suggests that things are changing.
Precious little Native American-related music has made the leap from reservation to mainstream music, save for the "swamp rock" of Redbone, which scored a Top 5 hit in 1974 with "Come and Get Your Love," or ancient Cherokee chart toppers like "Indian Reservation" by The Raiders, Cher's accursed "Half Breed" or exploitive instrumentals like "Apache" by Jorgen Ingmann and His Guitar, direct from that happy hunting ground of Copenhagen, Denmark. Few people even know that Jimi Hendrix and his guitar have Native American ancestry, on his grandmother's side.
Under the banner of "world music," Native American music has widened its audience while still maintaining its built-in fan base of a quarter of a million people scattered throughout tribes in the American Southwest. The Navajo nation is bigger than some U.S. states; Arizona leads with a concentration of around 100,000 Navajo. In the past four years, Canyon Records, a local distributor of Native American music since 1951, has seen two of its older titles by flutist R. Carlos Nakai (1987's Earth Spirit and 1989's Canyon Trilogy: Native American Flute Music) receive Gold Record certification by the RIAA, and has seen its catalogue amass Grammy nominations. "We've been nominated for 13 Grammys in all," says Cathy Norris, director of publicity. "A lot of our sales stem from sales at national parks and the Grand Canyon. We have listening stations there." That proves her point, that the majority of people purchasing the music are new to it.
Kris Cremain agrees. "I hate to sound like the broken record. A lot of people are saying stuff like that it's on the rise,'" he says. "Especially with the industry on the downslide and independent music on the upswing, there's a lot of possibilities for the independent artist. You have the folk music and world music picking up. This is the perfect time for an album like Sacred Stage."
Prior to suggesting a joint venture with the Cremains, Bilagody toyed with the idea of going country. "I had begun to realize that . . . the James Bilagody voice and name and recognition was really apparent so I wanted to test the water and see if it would translate [in other markets]. Country music's more popular out in the boonies so it would've been easier to market in a rural area," says Bilagody. "But I wanted to do something rock."
"When James approached us and said, I want to make a rock album,' we kinda went, You want us to do what?'" says Cremain, laughing. Before Sacred Stage, his group's previous output contained as much Navajo as Bilagody's recording had squealing Les Pauls. "The Cremains lyrics are all in English unless they're mumbled. The lyrics all stem from me and they're real personal, although some of them relate back to my youth. I did grow up on the reservation in Tuba City. But the lyrics are really just me me me' songs. We started in 1996 as a punk-heavy metal band, whatever it was. I listen to our first CD and it's pretty aggressive, and then the second one, we're more laid-back."
Listeners can be forgiven for thinking the second Cremains CD was more than a little laid-back and was in fact comatose, thanks to a mishap at a duplication house pressing their CDs in an incident that has become local music lore and won the group Best Promotional Blunder in the 2001 New Times Best of Phoenix supplement. The group pressed some 700 CDs with the idea of giving them out at that year's Ozzfest. The CDs arrived on the day of the show, leaving the group just enough time to race to Desert Sky Pavilion (now Cricket Pavilion) and pass them out as freebies to people exiting the show. Upon returning home, they slipped one of the few remaining CDs into the player and discovered they gave out 700 CDs featuring a lousy R&B lounge act out of California that 700 people and their intimates now knew to be the Cremains.
"A lot of them were tossed out on I-40," remarks Cremain, noting that the manufacturer made good and doubled their order free of charge -- they could hardly be expected to do any less. "We played out a lot after that and the harder bands that didn't know us would tell their friends, The Cremains suck,' but then we'd play and win them over. We made a lot of friends after that."
There's no doubt that within the first few bars of Sacred Stage, the Cremains are embarking on a deliberate, new course. For starters, Bilagody begins a song called "She's Up North" with an Asian-style toy koto line played on acoustic. "I've always wanted to go to China/Well, it's up north to somebody," he jokes. He sings the verses alternately in both Navajo and English, leaving a Pantera-informed guitar attack for the chorus. And when was the last time you heard a metal album where the singer asks someone "Will you sit with me in sandstone?"
"James wanted heavy," says Cremona Cremain. "He'd say, I want it to sound like thunder here. I want it to sound like rain.' On the song Horses,' he was trying to get Cosmo [to approximate] what the horse is supposed to sound like."
"I was trying to get Cosmo to play like a canter but I couldn't remember the word for it," Bilagody interjects.
"He's going, It's in between run and trot.' It was a canter, but I'm not a horse person. How would I know that?" says Kris Cremain.
The song that sounds the most traditional on the album (and not coincidentally the one that's getting the most play on Native American stations) is Bilagody and the Cremains' cover of seminal Navajo singer Ed Lee Natay's "Bow and Arrow," which contains vocals, drums and a droning guitar that almost sounds like a didgeridoo.
"Bow and Arrow' is one the Pueblo tribes go nuts over. It's like traditional dance music. Lyrically, it's mostly audibles," says Bilagody, who counts Natay as one of his primary influences. "He was half Navajo and half Comanche. He traveled throughout the Indian nations and learned their songs he recorded for Canyon Records. He sang a version of that song and Sunrise.' I wanted to make sure Native American music continues so we covered both those songs. They're also the only two songs that aren't Navajo."
"A lot of what I wanted to do with this new album is to get people to speak Navajo," says Bilagody. "If you learn the lyrics to the song Sacred Stage,' you can learn the beginnings of one of the Navajo prayers that talks about the sacred mountains." The song itself would not sound out of place on heavy metal stations yet is still rooted in tradition. Other songs with traditional sounds that are turned on their heads include "Sing Remember Me," which starts with an old favorite sing-along that according to Cremain sounded like doo-wop until Bilagody suggested they do it punk style. Kris Cremain had to learn to sing Navajo like an auctioneer and had particular trouble with the word "shitsui" (yes, pronounced shit-soo-ey), which really means grandson or granddaughter. "They had a lot of fun laughing at me from inside the booth with that one," says Cremain.
Although the album initially seemed like it might turn out to be incongruous, where one or the other parties wouldn't venture into strange terrain, the only song there was any dissention about initially was Bilagody's acoustic ballad "To Be in Love," mostly because it filters Bilagody's distinctive voice into a vocoder like Cher did on "Believe."
"We had an interesting discussion about that," Bilagody says. "I wanted a surreal sound because we're at a different level of communication and I just wanted to be in that surreal area. One of the problems I see Indian men have and men in general and me particular is to say I love you.' I intentionally put I love you' in there as many times as I could just to practice it. It's really difficult for Indian men; it's a bridge that's difficult to cross."
"We came back to the first thing we started with which was the vocoder. It went back and forth quite a bit. The more you hear it, the easier it is to hear. James loved it right away. I've come around," Cremain allows.
Tuba City recently received increased media attention when Lori Piestewa became the first Native American to die in U.S. military service. A good number of the reports described the western portion of the Navajo reservation as an economically despairing and challenged area, a notion that Bilagody tries to counteract in his music. "In each album, I want to do something that includes economic development because I want the people to think self-sufficiency and prove that it can be done," he says. "We're moving. We have our own college we're building now, [and] the campuses are just about completed. We have two high schools. I think it's the second largest community on Navajo. All of it is reservation. We have Bashas'. We have McDonald's, KFC, Taco Bell. We have a Chinese food restaurant, a pizza place and a general department store."
To honor those businesspeople, Sing for Me contained "Hey Boss," about a young Navajo lady who runs a construction company out of the Four Corners area, and this collaboration with the Cremains follows up with "Truck Stop Chii." "Chii' means grandpa' in Navajo," says Bilagody.
Bilagody maintains chiis and older fans don't have any trouble with the heavy stuff and doesn't anticipate any Bilagody-goes-electric brouhaha when the two play an entire set together at some Native American outdoor festivals this summer. "I've had 80-year-old people come up to me and tell me they love the album," he says. "There have always been quite a few heavy rock Native bands, but it's never been played in the mainstream. There's a lot of musicians out there, musicians who played in the '60s, '70s, '80s, who tried to get into the music business but just hit the wall and now they're beginning to put their bands together."
As for the Native American music scene here in the Valley, Cremain admits it's still a small and intimate scene where everyone knows each other. "I don't think it's ever been where I want it to be, the Native music scene," he says. "I think if we get a good number of albums that are more like what I think I like about this, I think there's a good chance that the national and international market will really pick up on it. It's real easy to like this type of music. It's got a little English in there. The whole thing's not straight Navajo and it's not much different from what's going on today."
"That's one of my dreams," says Bilagody. "That one day it won't matter that it's in Navajo. The music's so good that people will buy it because it makes them feel good."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.