Radical Rhythms: “Dancing on John Wayne’s Head”

Against the Current, No. 58, September/October 1995

John Greenbaum

SEVERAL YEARS AFTER emigrating to Canada from Jamaica, Pat Andrade made an almost surreal journey to the most isolated Indian reservation in the U.S. — Supai, Arizona. After descending eleven miles down the steep canyon cliffs by mule, he made his way through the village, reggae music emanating from every building.

During his stay, Andrade participated in a sweatlodge purification ceremony, played music, talked and savored the beauty of Supai and the warmth of its people. The Havasupai have incorporated patois into their language and frequently wear red, green and gold. Andrade’s dreadlocks were the object of admiration and fascination.

The experience was definitive for Andrade. Returning to Canada he began work with Spirit Voice, an aboriginal radio collective. The collective, however, quickly became frustrated with the corporate control and definition of native music. They began recording their own music on cassettes. Maya Music Group was born, distributing its tapes through the mail and on the pow wow trail. Andrade traveled extensively to organize projects. Native elders encouraged him.

This cross-fertilization of native traditional music with reggae was natural and conscious. Tape copying was encouraged and corporate culture circumvented. Maya Music defined its approach and gained a reputation for quality production and innovative music. By the beginning of the ’90s it had achieved national distribution.

This year Maya Music released its second CD, ”Dancing on John Wayne’s Head,” on the Extreme label. The album continues the ongoing tradition of cultural exchange. Reggae tracks take shape around traditional honor beats. The Eagle Heart Singers, a native intertribal singing group, chant over dance hall tracks. Black and indigenous poets and artists from South Africa, Chile, Greenland, North America, and Peru contribute militant, thoughtful, inspiring words spoken over reggae dub tracks.

“We’re just continuing a thousand-year old tradition of cooperation and cultural exchange between Africans and First Nations people [the Canadian term for indigenous peoples],” says Andrade. “We’re not trying to just throw exotic elements together. There’s this stereotype of indigenous people as these artifacts who are either dying or with no hope for survival. We want to awaken people to their own sense of power. Each person is valuable and has something to contribute. The power structure wants people to feel powerless and distrust others.”

Andrade’s experiences with some Native artists have been complicated by the legacy of years of colonialization and cultural genocide, a lack of confidence or sense of personal agency. The inclusion of aboriginal lyrics on every release is a conscious attempt to counteract the Canadian and U.S. governments’ repressive historical practices.

Combating Cultural Colonialization

Jeannette Armstrong collaborated with Andrade on his previous Maya Music release, “Til the Bars Break” and contributed the liner notes to “Dancing on John Wayne’s Head.” Indigenous men and women of her generation, she says, were forcibly taken from their families as children and sent to year round “boarding schools.” “I was being educated in a system basically designed to disintegrate and obliterate my culture… Parents never saw their children till they were finished (‘graduated’) or ran away or died.” Although there have been reforms, the system continues. Armstrong sees her work as combating cultural colonialization and “putting back some of the things that have been lost and to do some of the healing that’s required because of the really serious damage. Our people have suffered a holocaust.”

Says Andrade, “This project is about self-determination and sovereignty on a practical level.” In the struggle to achieve those goals, some powerful music has been recorded. For the album Andrade enlisted the doyens of Jamaican reggae: King Jammy, Mikey Dread, Bunny Tom Tom, Augustus Pablo, and the Grandfather of Dub Poetry, Oku Onoura. The Eagleheart Singers contribute some stirring vocals on “Basslines and Ballistics” over a nybinghi drum pattern. Sampled keyboards add an acid jazz flavor. Other contributors include former AIM leader and musician John Trudell and Chuck D of Public Enemy.

“There are no releases like this, no precedent,” says Andrade, reflecting on his job of coordinator and organizer. “We went down to Jamaica with chants and asked the musicians in Jamaica to improvise around traditional drumming and chants and then we did the reverse of that and asked the traditional singers to sing along with completed reggae tracks.”

But the process isn’t always easy or natural: “You’re asking musicians to question their perceptions in terms or areas of limitations, like ‘OK, I can’t do that, those two don’t go together.'” When that happened, Andrade would talk to the musicians about the history of exchange. For example, recent archeological findings show that Maroon communities in Jamaica had spiritual objects representing Arawak Indian and African deities, proving that the Arawaks weren’t completely annihilated by Columbus: the two cultures merged. The Carnival practice of dressing in Indian regalia in New Orleans, Trinidad, and Brazil originally comes from the African tradition of dressing in the regalia of other peoples upon returning from a journey to show honor, respect and appreciation for help and support.

After running over this history with musicians, says Andrade, “You can feel the barriers dissolving in their minds. Now the beauty of creation can happen.” The musicians are now a conscious part of a thousand year old tradition of cooperation and cultural exchange.

Andrade sees a vital role for cultural workers in social change, particularly in creating a fertile ground for an appreciation of diversity that goes beyond liberal faux diversity work and single issue organizing: “I think within North America there’s often a tendency to have a very narrow vision in terms of strategies. We need a more wide open inclusive vision when people of color strategize. There are a variety of cultures that all have various backgrounds and political lessons that we can learn from.”

That was evident in recording the track, “New Ways of Looking at Power,” in which women confront their male counterparts in the movement and comment on how the movement recreates the staus quo through internalizing old conceptions of power. Andrade sees the cut as crucial. He found a lot of resistance to this track. Other men saw him as a traitor. “But we can’t negate somebody’s potential contribution because of their gender either.”

The music on “Dancing on John Wayne’s Head” is a vital expression of cultural exchange and resistance. Just as Bob Marley provided inspiration for Third World liberation forces during the ’70s and ’80s, we will need these uplifting rhythms as we renew the struggle against Babylon into the next century.

ATC 58, September-October 1995