Native American Music

Native American music can be defined as the music of hundreds of Native American tribes who are spread across the US and Canada. Though the music of each tribe is distinct, there are some commonalities that can be owed to their folk musical traditions.

The music of the Native Americans is mostly choral vocal with rare instances of solo singing. It is entirely melodic with no harmony or polyphony but with occasional antiphonal singing between the soloists and chorus. Its rhythm is irregular. Drums and rattles are the chief percussion instrument of this musical genre whereas the flutes and whistles are the prime wind instruments.

Native American folk music is essentially religious and is the chief means of communicating with the supernatural powers. Gender also plays an important part in this music as different roles are usually assigned to the male and female singers – not to create inequalities but to reflect the eternal balance and harmony.

The hundreds of Native American tribal groups can be classified into six zones, depending on their traditional music cultures. These zones are Eastern Woodlands, South West, Great Basin, Plains, Northwest coast and Arctic.

Eastern woodlands covers territories like maritime Canada, New England, US, mid Atlantic, Great lakes and South East regions and are inhabited by tribes like Creek, Yuchi, Cherokee, Choctaw, Iroquois, Shawnee, etc. The specialty of this region is antiphonal or responsorial. Other features include frequent metric changes, rhythmic complexities, anhematonic pentatonic scales, moderate pulsation, close relation with ritual dance and use of flutes, drums, rattles, etc.

South West is the arid region of America and is inhabited by tribes such as Pueblo and Athabaskan. The Southern Athabaskan Najavo and Apache tribes have plain style nasal vocals that are swift and have unblended monophony. They use instruments like drums or rattles and Apache fiddle. The Pueblo music encompasses Hopi, Zuni, Taos, Pueblo, San Ildefonso, Santo Domingo and others and is quite complex in nature. Other features include low range and highly blended monophonic style, slow tempo, variety of form, which are meticulously detailed, and use of several percussion instruments. 

Great Basin is a sparsely populated endowed with tribes like Painte, Ute, Shoshoni, Herzog, Modoc and Klamath and their music is extremely simple, discrete and ornate. Other characteristics are short melodies with a range smaller than an octave, moderately blended monophony, relaxed and open vocals and paired-phrase structure.

Tribal groups like Blackfoot, Crow, Dackota, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa and Comanche reside in the plains of native America and their music is characterized by nasal tone, high pitches, frequent falsettos and the use of instruments like bass drum and solo end blown flutes (flageolet). The music of the Arapahos includes ceremonial and secular songs like the ritualistic sun dance.

Music of the northwest coast region is one of the most complex on the continent. It is characterized by features like open vocals with monophony (though polyphony also occurs), complex and declamatory rhythms, long melodies accompanied by chromatic intervals and the use of wide variety of whistles, flutes, horns and percussion instruments. This region is the home to tribal groups like Kwakintl, Nootka, Tsimshian, Makah, Quileute and Salish tribes.

The Inuit tribe of Arctic region is known for their special throat singing. The music of this region ranging from Alaska to Greenland is simple in nature and has features like narrow ranged melodies, declamatory effects, use of box drums, etc.

Recently, the Native American Indians have developed new genres of music like distinct rock, blues, hip hop, reggae as well as pan tribal styles (synergetic adoption from foreign communities) like powwows, peyote songs and Ghost dance. The leading artist of 21st Century is Martha Redbone who has successfully combined traditional with soul, funk, rock and jazz.

So if you are interested in exploring the mind-boggling history of Native American music then consult the web or catalogues in music houses and obtain the CD or record of your choice. After all, nothing is more original than the tribal music.

Joseph Paige 2006

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