Music News

Navajo Hum

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."

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Serene Dominic
Contact: Serene Dominic