The drum is central to powwow music. Singers beat in unison on its skin as their voices overlap with vibrato-laden syllabic sounds. No specific language is sung; instead powwow music is a spiritual communication that has anchored Indigenous American inter-tribal gatherings for over a century. On his debut album, Niineta, powwow singer Joe Rainey does without the drum circle and instead foregrounds layers of his own voice, assisted by producer Andrew Broder: the pair met at Bon Iver’s Eaux Claires music festival and subsequently became a part of his 37d03d collective.
The resulting 10 tracks provide a glimpse into the powwow lineage while pushing it into new settings and spaces. Many tracks add strings and grandeur to Rainey’s yearning, multi-octave range, transporting his performance to the realm of the concert hall. On BE Son, synth strings pad beneath his baritone to create a forlorn sense of longing, while Turned Engine sees long, bowing phrases add a romantic underpinning to Rainey’s tenor duet with singer Allie Bearhead. The intimate ballad Ch 1222 pairs sparse piano chords with Rainey’s whispering register.
Other songs dwell in the club. Towards the end of Turned Engine, Broder brings in a distorted kick drum that explodes like the heartbeat of an industrial techno track – a feature that continues on the crunching Easy on the Cide – bringing to mind the sparse soundscapes of techno producer Perc. The punchy 808 bass of No Chants takes us into trap territory, allowing space for Rainey’s voice to soar atop its minimal rhythm and exposing the underlying kineticism of his powwow songs.
Rainey emphasises that this modern subversion doesn’t negate the ancestry of his music. “These are all my creations, but they’re powwow songs, and our language is sacred,” he says in the press materials. It is a brave endeavour that straddles the line between tradition and adaptation, and ultimately Rainey and Broder succeed – allowing the uninitiated to experience and enjoy the enduring emotions of powwow music without muting its ineffable power.
Also out this month
Durban gqom trio Phelimuncasi release their second album, Ama Gogela (Nyege Nyege Tapes), a thundering success producing punchy syncopated rhythms paired with the group’s communal spoken word. Japanese singer-songwriter Yama Warashi’s Crispy Moon (Prah Recordings) is a meandering collection that traverses everything from Alice Coltrane-esque ambient soundscapes to Afrobeat rhythms and synth-funk. Highlights come on the quieter moments of Makkuroi Mizu and Haha No Uta. Moroccan Sufi collective The Master Musicians of Jajouka present their debut, Dancing Under the Moon (Glitterbeat Records). It’s a record best listened to in one sitting, showcasing the trance-inducing melodies produced by the double-reed rhaita.