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GRAMMY WATCH

Pre-Awards Victory for Native Americans

After years of lobbying, musicians see the recording academy add a category to honor their work.

February 20, 2001|RANDY LEWIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Muskogee Indian rapper Julian B. urged the small but appreciative audience at Sunday's Red Nation Celebration concert at the Palace in Hollywood to "make some noise," but they were already in the mood to cheer.

Beyond the crowd's enthusiasm for Julian B.'s blend of hip-hop music and canny raps on Native American issues, the fifth annual event held an extra measure of festiveness stemming from the addition this year of a Grammy category honoring Native American music for the first time in the music industry awards' 43-year history.

"This is a door opener," says singer-songwriter Joanelle Romero of rock group Red Hawk and the founder of Red Nation Celebration, held for the second year in Los Angeles after starting out in Sante Fe, N.M. "What I've gotten from everybody is that they are really, really excited about this category."

The musicians are also delighted over the decision by National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences officials to actually present the award during the televised portion of Wednesday's awards ceremony at Staples Center--an honor awarded only a small handful of the 100 Grammy categories.

"I feel like they're putting an Indian on the moon--it's that kind of giant step," says Tom Bee, a Dakota Sioux and president of Albuquerque, N.M.-based Sound of America Records, who began petitioning the academy in 1990 to add the category.

"If you look at the wide range of categories there are now, there are some pretty out-there ones--it's pretty diverse," says David Swenson, co-owner of Bismarck, N.D.-based Makoche Recording Co., a label that put out two of the five nominated albums in the new category. "To recognize Native American music is long overdue."

The cheering extends well beyond the performers on the works nominated for traditional Native American album: the Black Lodge Singers, Cheyenne flutist Joseph Fire Crow, Iroquois singer-songwriter Joanne Shenandoah, traditional drum-vocal group Lakota Thunder and the multi-artist "Gathering of Nations Pow Wow."

"Lakota Thunder is from a small town with a population of a couple thousand that's about 45 miles south of Bismarck--the Standing Rock reservation," says Swenson, whose Makoche Recording Co. put out the Lakota Thunder and Joseph Fire Crow albums. "The entire reservation is just buzzing."

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Being included in the Grammy telecast is a bonus that no one expected in the category's first year.

"Millions of people will hear about the music, the names of the artists and maybe a snippet of the music," says Swenson. "That will give the genre some validity in the commercial world, increase awareness and hopefully raise some curiosity. And all those things add up to sales and performances.

Along with the media exposure, the category's winner, and perhaps all the nominees, will get the kind of attention at the retail level they'd previously only dreamed of.

"The very fact that they've decided to put the Native American category on during the telecast will make a better presence for all the nominees, and we'll probably market the winner for an extra month now," says Chad Davis, classical and world music buyer for the Wherehouse chain.

One reason it took longer for the Native American category to become official than, say, the rock en espanol category, which was added the same year it was proposed, is that NARAS was adamant about increasing its Native American membership, says NARAS President Michael Greene.

"This is a very unique music form," Greene says. "I've never been more convinced that a membership drive had to be a precursor to addition of a new category than with this one. . . . To believe that any of those people [already recording academy members] could have an informed viewpoint of which is the most excellent recording of drum circle music or which is the most excellent traditional tribal chant--there's not any possibility unless you have that community involved."

Call it the Jethro Tull Syndrome.

Since 1988, the recording academy has desperately tried to avoid a repeat of the gaffe that year when the hard rock/metal Grammy Award went to British progressive folk-rock group Jethro Tull.

Greene doesn't expect that to be an issue this time, and virtually everyone interviewed agree that the five nominated albums are worthy of the recognition.

"We've gotten really good feedback," he says.

Before the academy embarks on a membership drive, which is launched only after it looks certain that a new category will be added somewhere down the line, the academy researches the genre to make sure it isn't just a passing fad. Like the disco category, which was added in 1979 and dropped the following year.

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Nowadays, the academy looks into how many records in a genre were released in the previous two to three years, how many record companies are devoted to the music, how many musicians, producers, engineers, performance venues and radio stations are involved, among other components.

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