Out There

Native sounds

Tribal Fires
various artists
Earthbeat!/Rhino Records

Warner Brothers Records

The concept of Native American music covers a lot of ground. Anyone who's traveled much through the American West--particularly if on a tour of state and national parks--is familiar with the authentic bone-flute-drums-and-chanting albums that are constantly in the background at souvenir stores, restaurants, and visitor's centers. At the other extreme, you find average bands looking for a little market leverage based on bloodline--trying to pass off their rendition of "Johnny B. Goode" as something more because they are Native American.

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Plainly something more than that is called for. The challenge from a marketing standpoint is to accurately represent the "other-ness" of the guest culture, while cushioning those foreign (and possibly challenging) flavors in the familiar attributes of the host culture.

Although these two albums are very different, they both achieve this blend, working very much in the tradition of earlier groundbreakers like Red Thunder. Tribal Fires is a sampler of different bands and artists working in this realm. Most of them take certain native attributes and support them with pop convention. Thus, you get Joy Harjo and Poetic Justice's "My House is the Red Earth," which has an almost-reggae lilt to it, or the machine-generated techno flow that pushes forward Lunar Drive's "Mo' Bridge South Dakota."

Singer-songwriter Robert Mirabal has a cut--"Witch Hunt"--that appears on both Tribal Fires and his eponymous debut, and achieves much the same blend of old and new. Mirabal cops--and often pulls off--the same socially conscious soul-man persona that rap, hip-hop, and the more international strains of Tejano capitalize on. He spotlights his flute-playing (he also makes the instruments and has examples on display at the Smithsonian) and often uses Indian rhythm patterns as the foundation for his songs. He switches off between English and native dialect ("The Dance") and does a moody, almost spoken-word tale of murder and hopelessness set in the desert that is as bleak as any rapper's urban gats-and-dope anthem ("Tony and Allison"). He has a good feel for moody introspection, but Mirabal also reveals a weakness for turgid stadium-quality arrangements, some of which may be attributed to the presence of Mark Andes (Spirit, Firefall, Heart) as something like a creative partner. Both albums make a good case for the music they represent; the mix is fresh enough that even Mirabal's cautionary examples don't count too strongly against it.

--Matt Weitz

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