Rock the 9's inaugural concert plugs in to Gathering of Nations weekend
By Marisa Demarco and Laura Marrich
It’s called "The 49"—a singing party that wraps up powwows across North America. In Albuquerque, it used to be held on Nine Mile Hill after the Gathering of Nations. "You'd drive up there off in those sand dunes and there would be thousands of Natives partying," says Rod Lacy.
Lacy is the co-organizer of "Rock the 9," a concert of Native rock bands that coincides with the Gathering. Rock the 9 will replace the "Electric 49" put on by Albuquerque band Red Earth, a mixed bag of music that once drew crowds to the Downtown's Wool Warehouse. But Lacy and partner JJ Otero are taking a different tactic. Instead of showcasing a broad spectrum of artists, they're shooting for a middle ground, which, at its core, is rock with the “ 'n' roll" still attached.
Rock the 9 is on Friday, April 25, at the Sunshine Theater. Gathering of Nations is held April 24 through 26 at The Pit. See the events schedule for more events information.
The concert ballooned on Lacy and Otero. In January, they thought they'd get a small show together with their two bands and one other, to capitalize on all the friends and family that would be in town. Hoping turnout would be strong, they upgraded to the medium-capacity Launchpad. But after the Golden West Saloon fire damaged the Launchpad, they jumped up to the Sunshine Theater. And it was a big jump. "Going from 360 capacity to 1,000 is pretty scary," Lacy says. The two organizers began cold-calling different artists and, to their surprise, landed two huge names: Keith Secola and Derek Miller. Acts from New Mexico, Arizona and Canada have signed on, each with its own take on what it means to be Native and a musician. Lacy and Otero don't have much experience promoting, but this year, their gamble is paying off. Here's to 49 more.
Plenty are ignorant of Native American influence on mainstream music, says blues rocker Derek Miller. Legendary musician Charlie Patton, known as the "Father of the Delta Blues," was Choctaw, Miller says. Link Wray, who introduced the world to fuzz distortion and is also known as the godfather of the power chord, was Shawnee. "Native America's contribution to the world seems to get swept under the rug."
Miller is Mohawk and grew up on the Six Nations of the Grand River in Canada. Being a Native artist comes with its own baggage, he says. That tag, to some, means second-rate. "But what I've created stands up to anything that anybody has ever done. People can call me whatever they want. I don't care. I'll still be Derek Miller, kicking ass."
Miller's debut album, released in 2002, was received with thundering acclaim. "All the Indian awards it could ever win, it won," he says. This year the Toronto-based musician took home the Juno Award for Best Aboriginal Recording of the Year. But he's not really surprised by his success. "I've been doing this for almost 20 years," he says. "I should be good at it."
I might be doing a frikkin' synth pop record next. I have no idea.
His guitar maintains an old-school distortion, lending sulfur to his blues licks and weight to his lighter, poppier tracks. He incorporates the beat and melody of old 49 songs into his guitar playing, he says. But for Miller, being pinned down to anything is slightly repulsive. "Everybody tries to pigeonhole me, and I consistently wiggle out of it," he says. He recorded an album with Double Trouble, Stevie Ray Vaughan's old band, that he says "sounds like a country, hillbilly, soul record. I might be doing a frikkin' synth pop record next. I have no idea."
Miller says he's proud of his background, and he considers himself a champion and ambassador for his people. His rising fame gives him a platform to raise awareness about specific issues, like poor drinking water on the reservations across Canada. "The underlying current of anybody is to be a good person and hopefully make responsible choices, and to create some infrastructure for the generations to come." (MD)
It'll be a happy reunion when Keith Secola comes to Albuquerque this weekend. The first time he stepped foot here, it was directly off of a bus, a few days before Thanksgiving in 1983. He had $100 in his pocket and 30 pounds of wild rice in his suitcase.
He was a young man who'd found himself far away from rural northern Minnesota, pulled by "the whole allure of the Southwest, the beauty of the land and the beauty of a Native woman," who would eventually become his wife.
But at the source of his restlessness was the Anishinabe singing that accompanied the rice harvest. There was also the pop and rock ’n' roll of the radio. He needed to share his music.
"It's kind of nice to come back into town and do gigs that are good pay for the people I'm playing for. Because I've been there. I've hitchhiked. I've sacrificed for the music. I've been poor for it, been poor so I could write original music," Secola says. Coming back to Albuquerque 25 years later as a world-renowned musician, "I've made the circuit, you could say."
"I think that as a Native writer, we can't be shackled by our own genre, what we think is 'Native.' ”
Today, Secola is still synonymous with "NDN Kars," a much-covered song he wrote in the ’80s. But he's always transforming. (He just recorded a punk rock version of the song, for which he's filming a video this weekend in Albuquerque.) Although he walks through the change more or less intact over the years—a rocker with shades, a bandanna hugging his forehead and a wooden flute in his back pocket—he's always attuning himself to positive innovation, becoming a conduit for it.
He's in one of his transformations right now. Until recently, he was Keith Secola and the Wild Band of Indians. By the time he hits Albuquerque, he'll be Keith Secola and the Wild Javelinas. The new name ties into the Native rock opera he's writing, which spans several genres and at least two languages. (In it, The King of the Javelinas is the king of all marginal creatures.) "I think that as a Native writer, we can't be shackled by our own genre, what we think is 'Native.' ”
He calls it rebel music. "Like a protest writer or folk writer or blues writer, you wanna say things, but you don't wanna turn off people, so you kinda use humor and wit as an indirect way of getting at something direct." It's a tall order, but Secola says, "We have to be entertaining, philosophical, spiritual and metaphysical." All of those things at once. That's the sweet spot. (LM)
The Old Main
Rod Lacy's lyrics aren't always comfortable. He's from a coal-mining town near Gallup called Gamerco, which stands for Gallup American Coal Company. And plenty of people he grew up with out there are addicted to meth. So he wrote a song named for the town in his band's alt.country style, though not everyone was happy about it. "My dad said, 'I don't want to hear you talking about Gamerco at all.' I'm like, 'Well, that's because I'm not talking about how pretty the trees are or how fresh the air is. I'm talking about how f***ed up everybody's getting here—how it's breaking my heart.' ”
Lyrics, says Lacy, are where his Navajo heritage has the most prominence in his music. But he recoils from the stereotypes. "We can't just sit here and talk about mystical shit all the time," he says. "Everyone thought alcohol was bad for Indians," he says. "Meth is just disgusting."
I don't really try hard to put all these themes in about listening to stuff on the wind, crazy stuff like that. It seems cartoonish to me. I'm an Indian. Not all the Indians are going to be exactly the same.
Lacy's half-white, half-Navajo and says that to some, he's just a white dude. But, he says, his music is a result of where he's grown up and the things he's seen. "I don't really try hard to put all these themes in about listening to stuff on the wind, crazy stuff like that. It seems cartoonish to me. I'm an Indian. Not all the Indians are going to be exactly the same."
Lacy remembers the man who introduced him to music. Wallace Castle, one of the original miners in Gamerco, used to play piano at the silent movies in Gallup. "He was 100 years old," Lacy recalls. "He showed me how to play a couple songs." Castle died when Lacy was still in his single-digit years and left his piano at Lacy's grandma's house.
His musical tastes as a kid leaned more toward country and old rock 'n' roll like Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly. Both are evident in The Old Main's sound, which would be comfortable, as Lacy is, at the flea market in Gallup or drinking Shasta under a tree in Church Rock, N.M. (MD)
Low Mountain, Ariz. It's in the northeast corner of the state, a pin-point in an empty triangle 75 miles by 75 miles by 75 miles, bordered by minor highways on the Navajo reservation. This is where Rocking Horse started. Sort of.
"We're about an hour and a half apart in every direction," Bronson Yazzi, the rock band's lead singer and guitarist, says. The three members meet up in the middle for practice a few times a week. "Somehow we manage to make it work, and we've done it since ’96. We do an average of two to three shows every month, and we also do the family thing, too.”
Rocking Horse is a band of fathers. Yazzi and his wife have two young boys—Chase, 7, and Seneca, who turned 1 last week. When you call him, Yazzi's cell phone plays the theme song to "Wonder Pets," the Nickelodeon show they watch together every morning.
I guess in a good way we stick out like a sore thumb.
The rez is good for expansive childhoods and creativity, says Yazzi, who grew up in Low Mountain. That's where, as a teenager, he taught himself to play Guns N' Roses on his cousin's acoustic guitar. "Early on, it was a lot of fun to be a kid. A lot of play space—you don't get that in the city when you're a kid."
Yazzi says music is everywhere on the reservation. There are between 20 and 30 bands just in his neck of the woods. Despite the proliferation of music, Rocking Horse is one of maybe two or three rock bands he's aware of out there. "You have one extreme, country music, and the other extreme is metal, or really hardcore death metal. We're kind of like middle of the road. Of course, when you go into a bigger city or bigger town, rock bands are a dime a dozen ... I guess in a good way we stick out like a sore thumb," he laughs.
Even though rock is more common in the big cities, Yazzi says he loves the response Rocking Horse gets when it plays shows off the rez. "People come up to you and say, 'You're from Low Mountain? I have friends and family there! It's great to hear you guys are doing something and trying to put that place on the map.' Those are the kinds of things we hear, and it feels good." (LM)
JJ Otero remembers sitting in an old, green Ford truck in Torreon, N.M., as a kid, listening to his dad's 8-tracks—Stevie Nicks, Fleetwood Mac, The Beatles. "Sometimes the 8-tracks didn't fit in quite correctly, so you were always wadding up pieces of paper, propping it up on one side or the other side so it would sound right." It's a sharp memory for him.
But starting a band seemed to loom over Otero for most of his life. In January of last year, he found a friend to jam on some songs he had written. Then a bassist fell into place, then a drummer. Saving Damsels came to be, and its first show was at the Diné College Music Festival.
He goes back to the Navajo reservation of his childhood pretty regularly. The kids there are listening to rap, heavy metal and punk, like kids everywhere. A wave of mohawks and skateboards is washing over Torreon, and it has nothing to do with location, he says. "Unfortunately or fortunately, radio and TV are huge out there. That's where we get all our images. That's what they're influenced by," he says.
Then we have Native people in our band. That shouldn't be the identifier. We're just a rock band.
The rez will always be home, he says, no matter how far away from it he is. "There's one song that we do that sounds like a Johnny Cash song. It's called 'Reservation Boy,' and it's based on my childhood and how I grew up on the reservation."
Otero attended Gathering of Nations and sang in Southern and Northern traditional styles until nine years ago. The Northern style is from the Plains Indians, he says. And it's hard to sing, as it demands a high register and forceful projection. His voice is more suited to the Southern style, which uses lower pitches.
Otero's voice is strong, and the use of an acoustic guitar puts Saving Damsels somewhere near bluegrass, pop and rock. The band's online bio clarifies it as "Red Pop. (For all those who are diabetic, Diet Red Pop.)"
But, he says, the "Native" modifier isn’t what defines the group; his is a straight-up rock act. "Then we have Native people in our band. That shouldn't be the identifier. We're just a rock band." (MD)
Coalition was born from humble circumstances. "I'd just got out of college, I didn't have a job, and I was a security guard, and that's how I met Duwayne," says Coalition singer Tony Rosales of how he and guitarist Duwayne Begay began their collaboration in 2001. "That's how I started writing; we were so bored. The job sucked."
And what do you write when your job sucks? The blues, of course. Starting the band, the first he'd ever sang in or wrote original material for, seemed like a stimulating challenge to tackle out in Tuba City, Ariz. The town has a population of about 10,000, but Tony says it feels more like three people.
"And you know what? I'd never been to Albuquerque until we started this band, and I thought Albuquerque was a small town like Tuba. How I figured it out was I was watching 'Cops' and they showed Albuquerque—I went, 'Holy crap! It's like a whole city out there! They've got more than two lights.' ”
"That's how I started writing; we were so bored."
What wasn't enlightening was watching just who the cameras lensed in on: a disproportionate number of Native Americans. Rosales says Coalition isn't a very political band, but he still finds himself writing about Native issues, especially the cycle of joblessness, depression and drinking he's witnessed not only on "Cops," but in his own family. Exploring that pain has opened doors in ways he never anticipated. Coalition's second album, Awake, was reportedly an inspiration for Mile Post 398, the all-Navajo film about alcoholism in the Navajo Nation by Shonie and Andee De La Rosa. Awake is featured prominently on the soundtrack. "That's mind-blowing," Rosales says.
Next on the agenda is completing the studio the four members of Coalition have been building, so they can get to work on their third CD. Coalition's first two albums were recorded at Duwayne's mom's house. No more, says Rosales. "We rigged the house and set up all the equipment in different rooms. It's horrible. We have the backrooms, but it's loud." Rosales says Duwayne's mom doesn't seem to mind, but it's because she's a huge sweetheart. "She really encourages her kids. She tells them, 'Do it. Get it done.' She's a really neat lady." (LM)