Music promoters look for wider outlets for performers
NEW YORK - Now that American Indian performers are making a mark in rhythm and blues, jazz and pop music, why don't they have more bookings at American Indian-owned casinos?
That's the question plaguing promoters and managers of Indigenous musicians who win rave reviews from New York critics but still find casino gigs hard to get.
"It's extraordinarily difficult," said Stephan Golfus, manager of Jana, the Lumbee pop singer who is a regular presence on the Billboard magazine best-selling record charts.
Jana was a headliner at the recent First Annual Native American Blues Festival in New York City's Tribeca Blues Club. Performers in the crowded house, including Gary Small, Jimmy Wolf and Tracy Lee Nelson's Native Blues Band, caught the eye of the city's music writers. But they rarely show up on the marquees of the 50 or so tribal casinos large enough to present name entertainment.
Although some casinos have begun to support American Indian acts, it's a short list, said Ellen Bello, president of the Native American Music Association (NAMA). When Foxwoods Casino Resort in Connecticut hosted the first NAMA award show three and half years ago, "it was the first Native-owned casino to feature an entire evening of Native music," she said.
Ray Cook, Mohawk entrepreneur and emcee for the blues festival, said part of the barrier is that casino managers are reluctant to commit their large halls to acts that they are afraid won't draw large white audiences. "What a lot of casinos want is a cross-cultural act, playing blues or pop like Jana does."
The key to increasing bookings is to target lounge venues with 200 or less seats rather than the 2000 or so of the big theaters, he said, adding that a tour based on casino lounges could help gain exposure for American Indian talent with less financial risk for the entertainment managers.
Golfus said another problem is the lack of a central booking agency for Native acts. Although the idea of a tribal consortium for casino entertainment has come up, Cook said it is still in the talking stage.
Even so, some tribes are moving to support Native talent, either through their casinos or casino-funded cultural centers.
Mystic Lake Casino in Minnesota has been host for the annual Native American Music Festival and billing American Indian acts along with the standard rock bands. Publicity director Patty Nystuen said next month it will feature the blues band Indigenous and folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie. The annual festival was actually programmed by the casino's tribal owner, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux.
Likewise, the Mashantucket Pequot tribe, owners of Foxwoods, is sponsoring a series called Indigenous Voices, not at the casino but at its Museum and Research Center. The series started this month with the venerable rock band Redbone and will present Indigenous and the Oneida diva Joanne Shenandoah. In a similar series last year, the museum also presented Sainte-Marie, John Trudell, the two female trios Walela and Ulali, Joy Harjo and R. Carlos Nakai.
Museum spokesman David Holahan said the casino included some of the same Native stars in its much more extensive schedule. "Foxwoods has worked hard to do that."
The Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian is getting into the act. Its George Gustav Heye Center in New York City is sponsoring its second annual Native Sounds Downtown Festival in August featuring the Cherokee rapper Litefoot and the waila (chicken scratch) band Cisco, from Arizona's O'odham people.
But Native performers are showing they can make an impression on their own, even in New York's hyperactive music scene. Just a week or so after the blues festival, the Navajo vocalist Mary Redhouse made a breakthrough in avant-garde jazz circles, appearing with the celebrated saxophonist Oliver Lake at the trend-setting Knitting Factory.
The blues festival itself, the brainchild of NAMA staffer Donald Kelly, was an eye-opener for a healthy turnout of big-city music critics. Although the Native Blues Band from southern California and the Gary Small Band based in Portland, Ore., have strong regional reputations, their music was new to many in the cramped club. Small made a special impression with songwriting drawn from his Northern Cheyenne roots.
Jimmy Wolf held the stage with an extended hard-driving set of Mohawk rock. The crowd broke into cheers when NAMA award winner Mary Youngblood kept right up with him on the Native flute.
Inspired by the response to the blues evening, Bello said she would like to put on a series of showcases for Native talent in other genres. She and Kelly are arranging a Native country music evening for Nashville, Tenn., later in the fall.
The performers were at least as excited. Cooling down in the basement dressing room after the show, Jimmy Wolf's bass player, Terrance Bishop, exclaimed, "We should get a tour together and burn across the country!"