Monday, October 27, 2014

Navajo Peyote Songs

by G. Jack Urso 

Cover from the cassette (author's collection).

Navajo Peyote Songs Volume 1, by Kevin Lewis and produced by Millard Clark, is a 1990 release by Indian Sounds on cassette that I picked up while visiting the Little Bighorn Battlefield the same year (then The Custer Battlefield). While I don’t understand Navajo, and they are not indigenous to the Dakotas, I found the recording a nice counterpoint to The Songs of the Seventh Cavalry. The rhythmic chanting provides a meditative space to immerse oneself in another culture. The full recording is provided below.
Lewis, according to ALLMUSIC, is of Navajo/Cherokee heritage and a medicine man trained to sing peyote songs by his grandfather Bud Lewis, who lived to 116 years. As a result, the lineage of tradition from the Old West to our ears is only one generation removed from that era. Herschel Kaulaity, of Cheyenne/Kiowa heritage, provides the drumming. There are twenty tracks; however, no titles or times are provided, nor are there any liner notes. While this is a missed opportunity to educate the listener, this does allow us to get lost in music that feels more like an expression of nature than the typical over-produced commercial effort. Volume II was released on CD in 1992.
The one break in the spiritual tone comes about 17 minutes into the recording when Lewis, caught up the ritual, begins chanting “Happy Birthday” over and over. While it must have some significance, without a translation it seems a little incongruent with the rest of the album. Rather than some peyote-induced wordplay, a Native American familiar with Navaho informed me that it is a blessing for someone who has lived to see another year. It would be nice to see a re-release of this album with translations to allow the non-Native listener to more fully appreciate it.
The artwork below is not from the album, but from a former student of mine of Apache/Mexican descent who incorporated Southwestern Native-themed psychedelic imagery in his work. Click on the link below to listen to the full album on the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube channel

"When Death Comes." art by Michael A. Nieves, July 22, 1994 (author’s collection).

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