“The Spirit of Our Music”: Concert to showcase, and benefit, Native composers


The American Composers Forum (ACF) is a national organization based in St. Paul. One of its programs is the First Nations Composers Initiative (FCNI), which on January 28 will be holding a benefit concert for its Common Ground re-granting program benefiting indigenous creative musicians. The Spirit of Our Music will feature indigenous musicians such as world renowned flute player R. Carlos Nakai, folk/blues guitarist Mitch Walking Elk, Native cellist and vocalist Dawn Avery, the award-winning all-female Oshkii Giizhik Singers, and Hok-A-Hey. The concert will take place at the Avalon Theater, home of In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre. (For details and ticketing information, see fcni.org.)

FCNI began in 2002 when Native American Composer Brent Michael Davids (Stockbridge-Munsee) suggested creating a virtual chapter of the American Composers Forum for Native artists. Davids, who began composing in high school, has composed music for such films as Dances with Wolves and Silent Enemy. Seeing a need for a Native composers’ organization, he helped begin dialogues with ACF and the Ford Foundation, eventually leading to the formation of FCNI. The program seeks to authenticate and preserve traditional music as well as promote new music, and generally encourages the appreciation, understanding, and facilitation of Native American music.

Davids says the most successful activity of FCNI is its re-granting program, which benefits Native composers and also communities. He hopes FCNI will continue to grow, and strengthen in its educational programs and also areas of scholarship. Davids has written about the importance of Native American music scholarship, but he says there is a great need for more academics to pick up where he left off. His paper “American Indian Music: Wading Into the Mainstream on Moccasin Strings” suggests an approach for developing “an authoritative understanding of American Indian Music that challenges the tendency of the mainstream toward uniformity.”

The concert on January 28 will benefit the Common Ground re-granting program, which offers awards of $500 to $7,500 to Native artists for activities such as commissions, residencies, performance, study, travel, outreach, and production. Grantees are chosen twice a year, on October 1st and April 1st.

Recipients of this year’s Common Ground grant include traditional musicians Joy Harjo (Mvskoke) and Shirley Kendall and Maria Williams (Tlingit/Haida), multidisciplinary artist Cheryl L’Hirondelle (Mestis/Cree-non status), contemporary singer Shelly Morning Song (Northern Cheyenne), blues musician Murray Porter (Mohawk), and spoken word artist Janet Rogers (Mohawk/Tuscarora).

Ojibwe Singer/Songwriter Lyz Jaakola, who will be performing at The Spirit of Our Music with the Oshkii Giizhik Singers, is a past recipient of the Common Ground Grant and currently sits on FCNI’s advisory panel. A Fond Du Lac band member from Cloquet, Minnesota, Jaakola received a Western education in Vocal Music at the University of Minnesota—Duluth’s graduate program. She also studied and performed opera in Rome, where she made the life-changing decision to focus on Native music, rather than opera.

Though she was at the cusp of breaking out as an professional opera singer, and though it was very exciting, Jaakola says she realized that she didn’t want to do it for the rest of her life. “There’s a certain element of ego that is necessary to break through in opera,” she says. “You have to focus on yourself so intensely…it doesn’t sit right for me.” Growing up on the reservation, Jaakola was “acculturated to think about the group rather than ourselves, and in doing that, we take care of our own needs.” So she moved back home, where she now works as a composer and educator.

Her vocal ensemble Oshkii Giizhik has between 15 and 20 regular members; it’s a community-based group that operates “in a tribal way,” Jaakola says, where there are no contracts, and no leaders. “From the outside it’s loosely organized. “We don’t force members to commit to any performances,” she says. “They come when we come.” The group recently received the prestigious Native American Music Award.

Kristopher Kohl Miner, the program director for FNCI, says that the program falls outside of Western categories. “Our ideas of success are different than the Western idea of success. Our wealth is knowledge.” Miner says that often the Native American community is invisible, and that FNCI aims to build the capacity of its community through Native song.