An Interview with Native American Musician Joanne Shenandoah

World Music Central recently interviewed musician and award-winning Iroquois artist Joanne Shenandoah. The Native American singer and guitarist has been very visible in the news lately. She appears on the Grammy-nominated album Sacred Ground – A Tribute to Mother Earth and she will be performing in a Joni Mitchell Tribute at Carnegie Hall.

The tribute, scheduled for February 1, is a benefit for Music For Youth and will also feature Shawn Colvin, Suzanne Vega, Marc Cohn, Laurie Anderson, Joseph Arthur, Tracy Chapman, Bebel Gilberto, Bettye LaVette, M’shell N’degeocello, Dar Williams, Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child and more. Tickets for the Joni Mitchell tribute concert on February 1 are $30 – $225.

On Sacred
Ground – A Tribute to Mother Earth
, a compilation by Katahdin Productions that features all new recordings by celebrated stars in the American Indian genre, delivers both a traditional spirit and contemporary style on “Seeking Light.”

She is also featured on the final track “Mother Earth,” joining Walela for the anthem that was used in the award-winning documentary Homeland: Four Portraits of Native Action. The film takes an in-depth look at the environmental hazards threatening Native American reservations.

Currently, Homeland is being aired on PBS stations across the United States and is one of many socially-conscious projects produced by the Katahdin Foundation, which is dedicated to producing outstanding works that touch the soul as they sound a call to action.

Joanne Shenandoah is a Wolf Clan member of the Oneida Nation — Iroquois Confederacy. Joanne’s talent combined with her beautiful, clear voice enables her to embellish the ancients’ songs of the Iroquois using a blend of traditional and contemporary instrumentation.

Q – Sacred Ground – A Tribute to Mother Earth, in which you participate, has been nominated for a Grammy. How did you get involved with the project?

I decided to get involved because Kahtadin Productions, headed up by Lisa Thomas, proposed a film production about the environmental state of reservation life in a movie called Homeland: Four Portraits of Native Action. This is what prompted me to put together the words and melody on Seeking Light to a track put together by Jim Wilson. In a world which seems uncertain, there are certain constants…like our Grandmother moon. She continues to give us our cycles and control the ocean tides. Mother earth is simply not a popular phrase used by our people, but a sincere and respectful name given to the entity which continues to sustain us. As Iroquois, we believe we all have a right and responsibility on this earth. I was named Tekaliwhah Kwah as a child which translates to: “She Sings”. It is said that if we use our Creator-Given talent, the world will markedly be a better place.

Q – Many of your solo works have an acoustic feel. How do you feel about fusions and combinations of acoustic music with electronics?

Since 1990, I’ve been performing and recording full time. I remember a public with a “fusion” of music at the Banlieu Blues Jazz Festival to sold out concerts in Paris and realized the universal message of peace, love and hope can be given through song to all peoples, religions and ages in many different mediums. Floyd Westerman, Paul Ortega and John Trudell were wonderful mentors. Our ancient songs and rituals celebrate and offer tribute to all living entities and that is why we continue to survive as distinct human beings upon on this earth. I believe we are all influenced by different styles and types of music and have used everything from the Synclavier to full symphony and, last but not least, ancient instruments to illustrate that point.

Q – What effect did your parents have in your appreciation of music?

The responsibility of Iroquois parents is to nourish the gift of talents of their children. My family certainly did that! My dad played guitar and loved blues and jazz. My mom and dad both sang, played guitar and piano. I believe everyday was filled with music as a child. Hank Williams, Sam Cook and Patsy Cline were favorites, as was Billie Holiday. Music came naturally to us all, and I believe it was a part of everyday life. Quite a gift indeed.

Q – I read that your parents sent you to music school and that you learned classical music instruments? Did you learn any Oneida songs at the time?

My parents taught me the importance of music since I was born; they took me to the traditional ceremonies and we always had music in the home. Music was a natural as breathing. Music is an integral part of Iroquois life and culture. I was intrigued by musical instruments of all kinds and learned to play many on my own. I took lessons in flute, clarinet, cello, voice and piano. I worked in the music department at Union Springs Academy, a private school west of Syracuse.

Q – It is said that you had a reawakening of your roots in 1989. What exactly happened?

After spending 14 years in the computer industry, I was sitting in my “window” office and saw a huge 200 year old tree being cut down. I was literally uprooted myself and knew that I wasn’t fulfilling my responsibility on earth – to sing. I moved back to my ancestral homeland and began the journey of bringing music to the world. I feel blessed our people know who they are and where we came from. We have a sense of destiny and purpose in the world which seems to be missing among so many.

Q – Were the Iroquois able to maintain many of their traditions?

Yes, many of the Iroquois people still maintain their heritage today. I just returned from the mid-winter renewal ceremonies which are at least 2,000 years old. It was indeed an amazing experience and privilege. We retain our language, our lunar rituals, our sense of community, a proud history and a distinct way of governing ourselves. Our people created the world’s first democratic united nations organization and we tried hard to teach the American colonists how to be free. They are still learning.

Q – Are there any musical instruments in the Oneida tradition that are still used? If not, what instruments did the Oneida use in the past?

Rattles, flutes and drums are our traditional instruments along with the voice individually and in group harmonies. All are actively used to this day. Some of the most beautiful sounds I’ve heard are coming from those who join in harmony to celebrate life.

Q – How do you record an album?

With sage, sweetgrass, and prayers since I believe there is a profound spiritual element in everything I do. I have worked and recorded with some of the worlds finest musicians and have been fortunate to have shared the experience of music with them. I work long and hard to make sure everything I record will affect the listener in a good way.

Q – What new projects are you working on?

I’m gearing up to perform at Carnegie Hall on February 1 for a tribute to Joni Mitchell! Also, I have a major role in a film entitled, The Last Winter, a thriller on global warming starring Ron Perlman which will come out this year. My next recording will be folk/pop and I plan to record it within the next few
months. If anyone wants to know more or keep track of what I’m up to:

Author: Angel Romero

Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music music for many years. He founded the websites and Angel produced several TV specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World.