Reggae on the Hopi reservation
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Sun Sep 19 10:22:19 MDT 1999
NY Times, Sunday, September 19, 1999
Reggae Rhythms Speak to an Insular Tribe
By BRUCE WEBER
KYKOTSMOVI, Ariz. -- From the top of Second Mesa, one of three flat-topped
mountains here that are the foundation of the remote Hopi reservation, the
view of vast high desert, empty to the horizon, is the sort to inspire
ruminations on man's existential solitude. And when the cloudburst came
late on Friday afternoon, with prongs of lightning blanching the enormous
sky, thunderclaps to wake the dead and hailstones dropping like bullets of
the gods, it almost seemed as though the natural spirits that are worshiped
by the Hopi were reminding the mortal of their mortality.
But maybe it was merely Mother Nature's sense of moment. The storm passed,
a full rainbow appeared across the western face of the mesa, and at sunset
the red rock glowed like an ember, warm and welcoming. And just about then,
the visiting reggae bands on the Teva Spirit of Unity Festival tour took
the stage at the Hopi Veterans Center, just below the lip of the mountain
ledge, and some 2,000 reggae fans went crazy. For six hours, the
gymnasium-like auditorium throbbed with life, in spectacular isolation
under a thrillingly bright half-moon.
The concert -- featuring top-flight bands like Steel Pulse, Third World and
Culture, and singers like Maxi Priest and Monifah -- was, in the words of
one Hopi, "the biggest nonreligious event of the year on the res." But
beyond that, it was the high point of a cross-cultural tradition that has
been building here for more than two decades.
Reggae -- the Jamaican-born, Rastafarian music characterized by a lilting,
insistent syncopation and a defiant live-and-let-live message -- has long
provided anthems of anti-oppression for third world peoples around the
globe, and it is popular on Indian reservations throughout the western
United States. (At the Friday concert, there were Apache, Navajo,
Havasupai, Ute and other tribe members, along with a fair number of Pahana
-- white people -- who came from three surrounding states and up to 150
But it has found a special welcome -- and an unlikely one -- among the
insular and secretive Hopi, a farming tribe with a complex and closely held
set of spiritual beliefs whose history in this area goes back to the
beginning of the millennium and who are known for guarding their ancient
culture from outside influences. Children are initiated into the tribal
religion as teen-agers; those who are never initiated are never fully in
the know. And everyone is discouraged from being too forthright with
"My uncles say that those who do not know anything will tell you
everything, and those who know something will not tell you anything," said
Lance Polingyouma, who grew up in Hopiland and now works as a "cultural
interpreter" at the Hyatt Regency in Scottsdale, explaining the Hopi to
tourists on their way to the reservation. "It's a pretty good axiom for
The reservation -- 11 villages on three mesas in the midst of a vast desert
highland the size of Rhode Island -- holds between 8,000 and 10,000 people.
Entirely surrounded by the much larger Navajo nation, with which the Hopi
have an ongoing land dispute, "the res" provides a life that Hopis describe
as fiercely clannish, with all the pride and resentment that entails, and
with many of the conflicts that go with wanting to get along in the world
at large and still maintain a private way of life. The people are poor, but
reject the lionization of money. Alcohol is forbidden on the reservation,
but alcoholism is a problem. Homicide is rare; suicide is not.
Especially for a younger generation of Hopis, reggae is the music that
speaks for them and the preciousness of their heritage. It isn't as though
dreadlocks are rampant on the reservation -- Hopi longhairs favor ponytails
and the occasional braid -- and it isn't hero worship. There are more
Michael Jordan jerseys being worn here than Bob Marley T-shirts. But ask
Hopis under 50 what draws tribe members to reggae (some older Hopis do view
a devotion to the music, particularly because of its association with
marijuana, as a diminution of traditional values), and they use words like
"relevance" and "identification."
"It's mostly the lyrics," said Jennifer Joseph, a painter and graphic
artist who grew up in a traditional Hopi family on the reservation. "They
sing about the same things we feel. They sing about oppression, and we feel
that here. And they sing about peace and unity in the world, which is what
our religion teaches us. But it's the beat, too. It has the same feel as
our tribal drumming."
The relevance and identification go both ways.
At Friday's show, Joseph Hill, the lead singer for Culture, a Jamaican band
that has been here half a dozen times in the last decade, paused between
songs to declare: "Christopher Columbus discovered America -- that's a damn
lie." Resplendent in a white suit, his dreads flying, he was speaking
indigenous North American to indigenous North American, exploited people to
exploited people. The cheers were wild.
Indeed, one reason the Hopi accept reggae so easily, said Poulingyama, is
that "they're not trying to take anything from us."
"They just come to bring us music," he said.
In an interview after he came offstage, Hill said of the Hopi: "This
culture is quite specific and lonely in its own right. But they are not the
only ones. The Rastafarians make two. The black man suffered the same as
the Hopi, but until this day we have never brushed against each other. The
only thing that has kept us apart is the journey between homes."
Hill, asked what made a Hopiland gig special, replied, "Boy, everything."
And he spoke of the percussion in Hopi music "that could well blend in with
reggae," and of the local landscape.
"If you are artistic, you can see tons of pictures in these rocks," he
said. "That brings me home."
In keeping with both cultures, as the language on both sides indicates, the
bond between them seems spiritual, and genuinely felt.
"There's something you just feel with this audience that you can't put into
words," said Richard Daley, who plays with the band Third World, and was
making his second trip to Hopiland. "They look at you with this glow, as if
to say, 'Hey, we've been waiting for you."'
In a way they have. People here generally credit Bob Marley, the Jamaican
singer who died in 1981, and his band, the Wailers, with instilling a love
of reggae among the Hopi in the early 1970s. Those were the days of
reggae's peak popularity around the country, if not the globe. They were
radio days on the reservation, where there was little live music but for
the occasional country dance, and where television was not yet ubiquitous.
"I remember I first heard it through my cousins, and I just got the
groove," said Burt Poley, 36, who is now a wood-carver whose specialty is
the kachina dolls that represent Hopi spirits. In the early 1980s, he was
one of a group of particularly intense devotees that ended up being the
first importers of reggae to the res. For years they had been so hungry for
reggae that they took to traveling to Phoenix for concerts by local bands,
a four-hour drive each way.
"We'd drive down late in the afternoon, go to the show, get back at 4 a.m.
and go to work that morning," said Gerry Gordon, a white man who lived and
taught elementary school on the reservation for two decades until he began
working in a Phoenix school this year. It was partly, if not entirely, out
of sheer exhaustion, he said, that they conceived the idea that would bloom
into a tradition.
"Finally we just thought, 'You know? Maybe it would be easier to bring the
reggae to us."'
He and his friends, a group of half a dozen, all of whom were Hopi,
arranged for a Phoenix band to play in an elementary school gym on the
reservation in the fall of 1983. Two hundred people showed up, "and for
most of them it was the first time they'd ever heard live reggae," Gordon
It was a couple of months later that he got a call from a record company in
Washington that had somehow got wind of the Hopi interest in reggae, and
which offered to send some of its artists out for a show. In 1984, the
first Jamaicans to play the reservation, Freddie McGregor, and a band
called Michigan & Smiley, arrived. Since then, there have been some 35
shows there, presented under a general billing in mock-Jamaican patois:
"Reggae Inna Hopiland." Most of the shows have been produced by Gordon's
and Poley's group, which calls itself Culture Connection. Along with a
promoter in Phoenix, Artist Resources, they arranged for the Spirit of
Unity tour to stop in Hopiland between dates in Santa Fe and Phoenix.
The bands were eager. Indeed, to make the stop in Hopiland, they agreed to
play for about a fourth of their usual rate and did without a lot of the
perks -- dressing rooms, specially ordered food -- that are frequently
negotiated as performers' rights.
"They're basically doing the Hopiland show for free," said Terri Larsen,
the president of Artist Resources, who also produced the show in Phoenix on
Saturday night. "Basically they're just charging us for sound and light and
transportation. It's costing us $12,500." A third of the profits will go
toward building a playground in the Hopi village of Polacca.
Curiously, the Hopi have yet to produce much reggae music of their own,
though one young singer and songwriter, Casper Lomayesva, has produced a
first CD and has been performing in Arizona and in neighboring western
states. Lomayesva, 30, grew up largely on the reservation, listening to
reggae on the radio and helping his grandfather tend the cornfields.
The CD is on his own label, Third Mesa Records, which is based in Phoenix,
where he now lives; it is called "Original Landlord," a reference to the
Hopi claim on its land. (The Hopi have lost land over the centuries, but
unlike many Native American tribes, they have never been relocated by the
federal government.) The title song, a kind of melodic rap, sad and angry,
with local subject matter but some locutions borrowed from the Caribbean,
goes this way, in part:
Our Hopi reservation no stretch far and wide
It gives us sense of purpose, me say sense of pride
Religion and our culture help keep us strong
I'm proud of these people, that's why me sing this song
Just check the history books, it is not what I say
The government, the policies they take my land away
Standing in the family field, fingering the cornstalks, impossibly healthy
in the sandy soil, Lomayesva pointed to a distant tree.
"I've written songs right in this field," he said. "I wrote 'Original
Landlord' sitting under that tree."
So are Hopi who love reggae made. Reggae musicians who love Hopiland are
made with a visit.
"It's an ancient place, a very spiritual place, that's how it looks to me,"
said David Kirton, a singer from Barbados, shortly after he arrived in
Hopiland for the first time. "I'm one for picking up vibes. And the vibes
are very good, too."
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