Native Flute Players: Robert Mirabal
I think it’s nice to highlight flute players who are rather talented and impressive so more people can appreciate the music that is out there. While I have many favorites which I will mention in future posts, I think it’s important for me to highlight a Native American musician that started it all for me. And that musician was Robert Mirabal.
I started listening to Robert Mirabal after I was looking for a PBS Special that I saw back in 1994. The special was “Spirit” by composer Peter Buffett, but I mistakenly found “Music From A Painted Cave” thinking it was “Spirit” and fell in love.
So I wasn’t a very big fan of Native American music when I was younger. Truthfully I was pretty loathing of anything Native American in my youth, with exception of the Boy Scout’s Order of the Arrow program. I choose the sound of electric guitars over the sound of the Native Wood Flute. I choose the sounds of a 21 piece Neal Peart drum kit over the sound of Pow-Wow Drums. I choose blue jeans over Native American regalia every time. The truth was … I didn’t really care for anything that seemed “Native,” because all I really wanted to be was “regular” and being dark skinned in a world of predominately pale skinned people was enough “different” for me.
Then I saw a quick glimpse of “Spirit” by Peter Buffett and thought, “Here is something I can give as a present to people, still retain my “Native Americanism” and not really care about the music. It’s new wave. It sounds like something people would think is traditional.” So I searched for it to appease my friends who wanted me to be different. What I found was something completely eye-opening. And that was Robert Mirabal!
“Music from A Painted Cave” was something unique for me. While it was “traditional” in the sense of Native American Flute playing, Round Drums, Dancing and Chanting the songs weren’t just about a world I knew little about. It was about a struggle of a group of people. It was about situations of unvoiced, uncared for individuals. It was about an interpersonal understanding of my role in a lost world I knew little about. His music spoke to me and got me thinking about a part of my life that I turned my back upon.
What I found was a voice of contemporary Native American Music. It wasn’t just flutes, drums, chanting and soothing relaxing sounds. It was contemplative, expressive and poignant. It was eye-opening to what was out there. And the flute playing … well … it was more than just the sound of a person blowing simple pentatonic scales. And that forever changed my view of what Native American Flute playing could be.
Ok. To be honest the music is still very “New Age” if all you know about New Age music is relaxing soothing tones. But if you are able to understand contemporary Native American music you’ll understand how this isn’t really New Age, but something more expressive that is a mash-up (internet terminology) of Folk, New Age, Rock, and Storytelling. And most of Robert Mirabal’s music is a wonderful combination of accessible portrayals of Native American lifestyle, problems and movements. Here is his intro to “Indians, Indians” from his album “Indians, Indians:”
Indians, Indians, Indians. Let me tell you about Indians. There’s Hollywood Indians. There fry bread eatin’ Indians. There’s wannabe Indians. There fat, skinny, tall, blonde Indians. Let me tell you about Indians. Some are stoic Indians. Indians that ride hogs. Indians that ride Indians. Some are long haired beautiful Indians. Some are “radical-free”, Leonard Peltier Indians. Some of them just don’t give a damn Indians. Frankly I like the type of Indians that always agree-to-be-last-on-display Indians. Indians, Indians, Indians. Types that like to party and get drunk Indians.Types that like to fight other Indians. Types that like to fight, fight, fight. Go to a Pow-wow; See them in their beautiful regalia; wicked smile, glint in their eyes Indians.
She was from Iowa looking for an Indian. It didn’t matter what kind. Just one taller than her.
“Hey you wanna see my horses?”
Something about this I’ve always liked. I think it’s the idea we can categorize ourselves into groups of intricate diversity, but in the end it really doesn’t matter. The truth that she just wanted something “tribal” and he just wanted her removed all the bias they placed on themselves. The rest of the song is the story about what happened that summer …
Interestingly Robert Mirabal is a Grammy award winning artist, but he did it under the name Johnny Whitehorse. He has recorded three albums with the Johnny Whitehorse moniker and his second album, “Totemic Flute Chants” won a Grammy in 2008. People have asked why he recorded under a different name and his response is:
People ask me why I recorded under a different name and it was because I wanted to collaborate with as many people as I could with the flute.
He has three Albums as Johnny Whitehorse. Most of the Whitehorse albums are flute and drum music, while his other ventures are very contemporary in nature. So if you’re interested in just hearing more Native Flute playing from a great Native Flute artist I would definitely recommend the Whitehorse Albums.
However, I think one of his best albums is his collaboration with another great Native American Artist, Bill Miller. This collaboration is called, “Native Suite – Chants, Dances and the Remembered Earth.” It is a 4 song album which showcases the Native American wood Flute, Native American Drums, and contemporary guitar and keyboards in a much more “classical” setting. The album feels more “classical music” than it does “new age” with 3 of the 4 songs being over 10 minutes long and containing multiple movements. I love this album because I think it is a great traditional modern day approach to the classical long form using Native American sounds.
If there is one thing you can say about Robert Mirabal is that he doesn’t shy away from different styles and unique approaches to his music. Which is why I really enjoy listening to him as well as think he is a great musician for other people to know about and like. If you want an artist to gain a more eclectic appreciation of Native American music I highly recommend trying Robert Mirabal.