Dawn Avery: Performance as Prayer

Dawn Avery – Photo by Deborah Martin

In Dawn Avery’s recent album “Beloved,” her voice is strong and determined. Her songs are often slow and thoughtful. Her cello traces graceful circles around a guitar and a Persian tar – a stringed instrument similar to a sitar. The daf, a Kurdish frame drum, provides a steady, low, underlying rhythm. Gentle waves wash over the listener.  The music is a synthesis of her many musical experiences.  She has worked with Philip Glass, Sting, and many other stars.  Her music has echoes of Glass’s compositions. It is cyclical – it pulls listeners in and moves them into a meditative space. 

Dawn Avery – Beloved

“Beloved,” is Dawn’s embrace of her Mohawk heritage and her study of Sufism. Her music explores the Sufi theme of longing for the divine. On the track, “Night and Day” we hear Rūmī’s words:

I am dazed at the thought of you,
night and day.
I will place my head at your feet,
night and day.

Dawn is no newcomer to music. Her father, Chris Bukholz, a jazz drummer, played in the Lennie Tristano trio. She often fell asleep on his lap to the sound of Bebop, which she learned to love.  Dawn is a vocalist, cellist – she studied the instrument at the Manhattan School of Music, a composer, and a professor of world music at Montgomery College, Maryland. In conversation, she has not let this strong musical background go to her head. She is warm, down to earth, and brings fresh insights into her music.

DJL: Did your father’s approach to music inspire your own?

DA: My dad’s love of Bebop and old jazz meant it was always playing in the house. There was a reverence when Billie Holiday was played. We were taught to be quiet, listen, stay still. His listening discipline as well as his intelligence in analyzing both the technical elements and musical message of various styles of music affected me greatly. He never missed a day of practicing!  His interest in world cultures, religions, and art sparked my pursuits. His Mohawk heritage allowed me to pursue our culture in ways he was unable.

DJL: Your father played with Lennie Tristano. Tristano was an original composer. Did his music and composing influence yours?

DA: Tristano’s use of counterpoint, advanced chromatic harmonies, some avant-garde melodic passages, along with his attention to great technical and rhythmic detail, influenced my playing and composition. The attention to discipline in practice habits, performance, and listening to music, influenced how I grew up as a musician.

Dawn Avery – Photo by Deborah Martin

DJL: What are some early memories of playing music?

DA:  Piano was my first instrument. I was serious about it. At 16, I played at Carnegie Hall. When I later started playing cello, I got to play Beethoven’s Fifth in the center of a big orchestra, in the middle of all that vibration.  It amazed me. It reminded me of being in the Longhouse.

DJL: Is the drum at the center of the Longhouse?

DA:  In the Longhouse, rattles are the pulse of the music.  But you are right, the rattle has a drumming aspect to it. It has a large vibration about it.

DJL: Why did you choose the cello?  It has a female shape?

DA: Yes, a very sensual instrument. The elementary school cello teacher would not let me play any another instrument, so I played cello, but was more serious about the piano until I was seventeen. I thought the cello would be less of a solo instrument and enable me to play in diverse musical styles.  I like that the cello sounds as a human voice at times.  It has a big range, at the lower range you can play the blues, higher up classical music.  And when you hold it to your body, you get a certain feeling from the instrument.

DJL: Why is it important to you to preserve Native American music?

DA:  I first worked on reissuing some older music: Mike Jock and the Big Bear Singers.  In Mohawk language there is a word Non:wa that means now.  We have a different understanding of now, the past is very much a part of our present. 

Preserving these traditions is a way of keeping our heritage strong and alive and of healing mother earth for all peoples.  I formed the Native Composers Project and we invited people to compose songs in their Native languages as a way of preserving them and bringing them into the present. 

DJL: What are the connections between Native American music and Sufi music?

DA:  Hazrat Inayat Khan, a Sufi master, wrote, “The beauty of music is that it is the source of creation.” As a woman of Kanienkéha, Mohawk heritage, and a student of Sufism, I am aware of the vibrations in the world around me as the source of creation from first breath to the sounds of nature. Whether in the Mohawk Longhouse or in the Sufi Sema traditions, I sing to all of creation and strive to live in the beauty and remembrance of all who we are with the divine.

In Mohawk, the word for song, Karèn:nen is translated as “lay your vibration down.” This word was interpreted as a word for prayer by Western linguists. In Sufism, there is also the idea that the soul itself is song. Ceremonial and social songs in the Longhouse are sung to the people, Creation, and to the Creator for healing, remembrance, and peace, just as “The power of the voice as inspiring, healing, peace-giving, harmonizing, convincing, appealing…” exists in Sufism (Hazrat Inayat Khan). As Sufis may “increase the fire of their devotion while listening to music,” the Mohawks of the Iroquois Confederacy dance and sing around the fire to express their love of Creation.

In addition, there are many values and aspects that are similar, such as concern for the community, circle dances, the importance of ceremony, story-telling and metaphor, healing techniques, all of Creation at the center of daily life, the concept of gratitude.  I have been privileged to study language from both traditions through a cultural and historical translation of each syllable. I use these ancient languages in part of my music to invoke the spiritual depth that these two traditions give to us – with hope for the future.

Dawn Avery – Photo by Deborah Martin

DJL: Speaking of hope for the future, you wrote to me of a “softer kind of activism,” and your performances have been described as “loving.” Can you speak to that?

DA: Yes, I see my role not as pushing a specific agenda, but working in a healing and unifying role to share some thoughts in a less threatening way.  I hope that comes through to the audience. People often tell me they received love and healing in the room. I know as a trained healer that I am giving and receiving! It is probably unusual for someone of Native American heritage to be seen onstage performing Sufi music.

DJL:  Do you think it is important in these times that the broader American society better understands Native American and Sufi philosophies? 

DA: It is so important that Americans understand that the basis of these philosophies is love and respect.  I teach at the college level and I see many Muslim students saying how they are stereotyped as terrorists.  These kind and intelligent students are often treated so ethnocentrically. 

As we know, humanity consists of both good and bad.  However,  it seems that racist tendencies have really been brought out during this current time.  I think that many people knew they existed in the United States, but perhaps some of us did not realize just how strong they were.

My way of participating in a “softer activism,”  is to present and open up discussion to different points of view through less threatening mediums such as music, workshops, conversation, and the bringing of different cultures together. I want to hold onto the core of beauty and love that are not only important in both Native American and Sufi philosophies, but to us all.

Dawn Avery

DJL:  You have recorded many albums in your musical career, why this album now?

DA:  Well, I worked on recording it two years ago, but kept it to myself for a while, meditating on it, before sharing it with the world. Sharing the different voices of humanity. Releasing this music has a vulnerable aspect to it where something that was private becomes very public. 

There is the track “Super Heroes” on the album with the refrain, “Be a Super Hero, renegade for love.” The United States has a strong tradition of super heroes, especially in cartoons. But here the hero could be the listener. The song is ultimately about how we elevate our spirits in the world.

DJL: Your music has a meditative quality to it: it reminds me of Philip Glass’s music.

DA: Yes, it can be meditative. People have described it as, “mystic pop.” Perhaps, it has a chill and spiritual aspect to it that is found in Glass’s music. I love hearing what associations people have when they listen to my music. It is meant to be music that enables people to reflect.

DJL: There are two other main musicians that perform on this album, the guitarist Larry Mitchell and Behfar Behadoran who is a vocalist, tar, and daf musician. Can you speak about them?

DA: Larry and I have worked together for about ten years on several Native American music and meditation projects.  He has been described as a guitar texturalist. He lays down a delicious bed of textures and grooves from which I can soar as a musician. Our different strengths interweave with one another. 

I met Behfar while teaching at Montgomery College. One day, I was surprised to see this student walking around campus with a Sitar.  I really like how he plays because he knows the old Persian Sufi songs, but he can bring a contemporary feel and great technique to them.

It is also important for me to include Sakina Nur, the whirling dervish who performs with us live on stage.  She is also a flamenco dancer and sometimes includes that tradition when she performs. Sakina even got the audience to whirl!  I cannot separate her from us as musicians as Sakina is integral to this new music.  In the Iroquois tradition, we have this idea of being connected to the earth.  And you cannot really whirl as a Sufi dervish, unless you are connected to the earth and reach for the skies.  When I play with her, she makes true magic and her vibration is part of the musical prayer.

DJL: Towards the album’s end, the music also makes true magic.  “Night and Day” is a powerful, mesmerizing piece. The pace slows down. The music breathes.  There is a beautiful interplay between the cello and the tar.  Theirs is a heartfelt conversation. 

DA: “Night and Day,” is contemplative, it is a song about longing for the beloved spiritual teacher.

DJL: Do you move into a different state when you perform?

DA: Once I step on stage, I am in meditative connection with the audience and performers, a channel of the divine. I am truly blessed to be connected to people in this way. The performance is prayer.

For more information about Dawn Avery, you can visit her website: www.dawnavery.com

Author: Dorothy Johnson-Laird

Dorothy Johnson-Laird is a freelance world music Journalist. Twitter: @MusicIntoWords Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/pages/African-Music-Into-Words
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One thought on “Dawn Avery: Performance as Prayer”

  1. Extraordinary and keen sensitivities by Dorothy Johnson-Laird. Very few world music journalists/ writers have her capacity to listen and bring forth such deep understanding and appreciation of Dawn Avery’s historical recording.

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