Radical Rhythms: In Praise of “Honor”

Against the Current, No. 68, May/June 1997

Kim D. Hunter

Indian boy takes a drink of everything that killed
his brother . . .
— Small World

INDIGENOUS PEOPLES OF North America continue to seek justice and self-determination, trying to save themselves and their land. One of the latest efforts comes in the form of “Honor,” a two-CD multiple artists compilation on Daemon Records. Sales of the recording benefit the Honor the Earth Campaign, an effort of Seventh Generation Fund, The Indigenous Women’s Network and the Indigenous Environmental Network.

The CD release last year followed a highly successful benefit tour by the popular folk-rock duo the Indigo Girls, made up of Emily Sailers and Amy Ray, which raised $200,000 to be distributed among forty-one indigenous groups.

Ray has done a fine job of producing “Honor,” which features twenty different artists. This is one compilation CD you won’t have to program: Just hit the play button and dig it.

There’s a good mix of rock and folk with a few surprises thrown in, like ravings of punk diva Exene Cervanka. Rusted Root, Soul Asylum and Toad the Wet Sprocket check in from the “alternative” rock star camp. Among these, Rusted Root provides the most interesting contribution.

The ever innovative Latin Playboys, a Los Lobos spinoff, give us an acoustic version of one of their best tracks “Wake Up Delores.” Bruce Cockburn’s “Wise Users” is a great song directly inspired by indigenous environmentalism. Tracks from the band Ulali act as book ends for the recording, which begins and ends with their uniquely angelic sound rooted in native tradition.

Whatever the particular artist’s style, the record is consistent throughout. Perhaps the best thing about the record, other than the causes it supports, is that it displays the great range and depth of aboriginal artists. From the aforementioned Ulali with their easy sound to the hard unblinking lyrics of longtime activist-poet songster
John Trudell, all take their own tack musically and lyrically.

I return most often to the tracks by the group Indigenous and poet/musician Joy Harjo. Harjo makes the most successful integration of the traditional native music with a jazzy brooding song called “Creation,” while Indigenous just plays good rock with conscious lyrics.

Overtly political, often razor sharp lyrics are the one thing the native artists do share. The most poetic of the lot may be the words spoken over the music of Sherman Alexie and Jim Boyd:

Indian boy takes a drink
of everything that killed his brother
Indian boy drives his car
Through the rail,
Over the shoulder,
Of the road,
On the res,
Where survivors are forced to gather
All his bones
All his blood
While the dead watch the world shatter

Then comes the sung refrain with the ironic title:

But it’s a small world.
You don’t have to pay attention.
It’s just the reservation.
The news don’t give it a mention.
It’s a small world.
It’s gettin’ smaller and smaller and smaller.

The matter-of-fact delivery of spoken and sung words in “Small World” supports the ironic tension of the refrain.

It’s a bleak vision, one that may seem at odds with the uplifting goals of the project; but this is one of the few venues for those stories so desperately needing to be told and heard. And the first step in dealing with a problem is to face it.

There are more hopeful songs and stories. Poet Joy Harjo blends romance and practicality in her jazzy-fusion “Creation Story.” In the end her words may embody the spirit of the whole record.

I never had the words to carry a friend
from her death to the stars correctly
or the words to keep my people safe
from drought or gunshot . . .
The stars who are created by words
are circling over this house
formed of calcium and blood . . .
If these songs can do anything
bless this house with stars
transfix us with love.

ATC 68, May-June 1997