Michael Shipley had a unique upbringing in his Northern California home which most definitely influenced the creative work he does today. His father, William Shipley, was an ethnolinguist who taught at UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz. As part of his father's doctoral work in the 1950s, he went looking for native speakers of Maidu, a language that had never been properly documented by Euro-Americans. He was fortunate to meet many Maidu people that still spoke the language including a woman named Maym Benner Gallagher (Maidu/Dutch).
Over the years, William's and Maym's families developed a deep friendship and often hung out with one another. Because of this, Michael says he grew up in a family where “Native issues, particularly the threat to Native languages, were a perennial topic of conversation and concern.” Michael and his sister Freya are still friends with Fred and Brenda, Maym's two grandkids pictured below.
By the 1990s, Maym's youngest grandson Kenny went to live with the Shipleys in Santa Cruz. He wanted to learn Maidu from Shipley since the native speakers of Maidu were almost all gone. Unfortunately Maym had passed away six months after Kenny was born so he did not have the opportunity to know and learn from her. Again that is why the Shipley family's bond with the Gallagher family was so important.
Since the Maidu language was such a big part of his life growing up, it only makes sense that Michael Shipley pays homage to the language on his album debut album Blood & Vanity. Shipley says he wrote the song “Don't Let Me Forget” with two meanings in mind.
“At one level, it's about the Maidu people and their struggle to stay connected to their traditional past. At another level, it's about growing up with my father and my desire to stay connected to the work he did to celebrate Maidu language and culture. In that sense I'm talking to my self when I say “Don't let me forget”, that is, remember everything my father said about the beauty and preciousness of Maidu people and culture. In both meanings the song is saying, “Remember, have hope, don't let Coyote trick you into thinking cultural revitalization is hopeless.” For all the sadness my dad felt over the fading of the Maidu language, just since his death, Kenny and a number of others have done an incredible job of preserving and starting to actually rebuild the speech community.”
Take a listen to the song below:
Shipley says the vocal you hear in the song is Maidu. “I wrote it in English and my father translated it not long before he died. The Maidu version came out much more poetically lovely than my original.” Kenny Holbrook, Cary Beare (guitartist for the band) and William Shipley all sing on the track.
Also featured at the end of the album is a flute song called “Ja'lulu' Kojo'di”, which means “Flute In The Valley” in English. Ben Cunningham-Summerfield (Maidu) is the one playing the flute on the track. He is a Yosemite park ranger and plays the traditional elderberry flute. See if you can hear the difference on the track between the elderberry flute and others you may be more familiar with like the cane flute.
Keep on singing Maidu! I'd love to hear more from all the musicians featured on the album.
If you'd like to buy a copy of Shipley's music visit http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/michaelshipley. Follow along on his musical journey at http://michaelshipley.org/ and his Instagram: http://instagram.com/michaelshipleymusic. To read more about Shipley and Holbrook's Maidu language journey visit Mother Jones' article Keepers of a Lost Language.
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