In the quite literally hundreds of genres of music that can be found out there today, native recording artists find it increasingly difficult to get noticed. I will even dare to say more so than non-native artists out there. This isn't’ to say that the Non-native artists don’t have it difficult themselves, they most certainly do. But the challenge for Native American recording artists is (somewhat) one of identity.
If you are a Native American, and a recording artist, and the style of music that you perform is the blues, do you call yourself a “native blues artist”? Or do you say that you are a blues artist that “happens to be native”? Musicians have expressed to me that this decision is driven heavily by their perception of where their music fits in the market place. The digital marketplace that artists find themselves in today is very broad compared to a few years ago when the focus was more on radio play and obtaining a label for recording and promotional purposes. The internet wasn’t really considered an important place to be seen or heard.
Today, the internet has become the great equalizer for many recording artists. it’s a great promotional tool. It also puts a lot of control in the hands of native artists who just a few short years ago just really didn’t have access to. One of the biggest attractions for a recording artist using the internet is the control over distribution of their music. They can release as little or as much as they would like out into the “digital wild”.
From a consumers point of view, the internet has become an equally important tool for discovering great new music that otherwise would have been harder to find a few years ago. This is how learned about the music of Howard Lyons, a member of the Mohawk tribal nation. In 2001, I was sent a MP3 from Howard's 1st CD “Hopes And Dreams” I was producing a internet radio show back then which focused on the movers and shakers in native music, and I was looking for some east coast artists to feature.
Howard produces music in the country / folk genre, which at the time I honestly was not as familiar with. But I found the music to be very nice and relaxing in a way. I reached out to Howard to see if he was interested in a interview and he agreed. He was living in New Hampshire at the time and was always on the road. He stopped in to visit with me in My studio in New London Connecticut. I remember the interview very well because it was a few months after the tragic events of September 11th. I asked him about that day, and what he, as an artist, did to get his emotions out whenever there was such a dramatic traumatic event that happened such as 911.
“You know for me, I begin to write down my thoughts. As random as they might come. But one of the things that happened right after 911 happened was that the skies were returned to the birds”.
I’ll never forget that. What he was referring to was the fact that all air traffic was grounded, and (at least in my lifetime) I don’t recall that had ever happened. It was a unique observation at that time that just really stuck with me. And it was uniquely Howard’s own way as a singer/songwriter to look at the situation from a different perspective.
In 2001, Howard had actually released two albums…. “Hopes and Dreams and also a more contemporary album called “Spirit Walk”, an album that I really love and own several copes of. (CD and digitally) inevitably, you will find at least two tracks from that CD on many of my personal playlists. (I recommend these tracks from that CD: “Spirit Walk” and Track 09, “Exiled”)
Over the years I had lost touch with Howard…. and wasn’t sure what he had been up to. Then I was given his latest CD to review entitled “Reach Within”. Released in 2011, some of the tracks are re-makes of the ones that first appeared on “Hopes and Dreams” They are however, re-mastered quite beautifully. Others are completely new, and I have to say I am truly enjoying them.
Produced in South Florida, “Reach Within” was engineered by Paul Deagling, who also put Howard in touch with many great musicians from the local area. Howard also brought in some extremely well known names such as Joanne Shenandoah (Vocals on track “Yahne Yah Ho”) and Paulie Cerra, (Saxophone player on Tracks “Departure” and “Reach Within”) an outstanding musician originally from Syracuse New York. Cerra’s credits include working with BB king, along with other blues greats such as Al Green, Little Milton, and Bobby Bland.
The song “Departure” is featured twice on this album. Track 12 however adds a unique style with Paulie Cerra playing sax to Howard's vocals. This brought a nice dimension to the song. It’s very much like what you might find on a rock album which features an acoustical version of a popular song.
Then there is the title track itself….”Reach Within”. What a positive and uplifting song which I could easily see being aimed at the youth of America. As a video producer, I immediately started to see images in my mind of smiling children's faces, happy families, and other strong visuals. It talks about looking at yourself positively, and when you feel good about yourself, the world will see the good in you as well. A message that is so needed to our youth in indian country today. That they are so beautiful, special, and most importantly, not forgotten.
Another track on this album that I also enjoyed is track 7, simply titled “The Love Song”. Initially I thought it would be about couples relationships, but in fact it is deeper than that. It refers to love as being center in all of our lives, and an important component that binds us together as human beings regardless of where we are from.
The year that I met Howard, he was nominated for a Native American Music Award (The NAMMY) for best folk recoding for Hopes and dreams, as well as a Grammy entry for Best New Artist and Best Native American Recording, both for the album “Spirit Walk”. In 2004, he was nominated for “Best Pop Recording” also from Spirit Walk at the Milwaukee Indian Summer Music Awards. In addition to his music accomplishments, Howard is an outstanding educator, touring nationwide teaching native culture to elementary and high school students. His focus has been to present native historical facts in new and creative ways, using his music as a vehicle to do so.
“Reach Within” is described on Howard’s website as “a brilliant array of styles and textures showcasing country / folk, pop, and Native American chant.” I agree. It is a deeply layered album with outstanding musical compositions and deep lyrical expression. Like the album title implies, look inside and find music that is well rooted in Native American folk and country heritage.
Album Review: “REACH WITHIN”
Recording Artist: HOWARD LYONS (Mohawk)