Photo: Dawn Avery Performs at Spirit Moon Well Living House 2014
The more I learn the language, the more it changes me. The whole vibration of the sounds, and also the worldview embedded in the language is so profound, that even just learning one word and using it in your life, really can change you…
Q & A with MM’s staff writer, Jamaias DaCosta
Grammy nominated Kanienke’haka cellist, composer and educator Dawn Avery is all about frequency, soundscapes, vibrations, and re-calling the Indigenous language roots of her ancestry. Dawn has a vibrant presence, which translates through her music and performance. Last week Ms. Avery was in the One Dish One Spoon treaty territory of the Anishinabek & Haudenaushonee aka Tkaronto (Toronto) to support the second annual Well Living House Spirit Moon fundraiser. Well Living House is an Indigenous –driven action research centre that promotes infant, child, and family health and utilises community and traditional knowledge for solutions. Ms. Avery’s approach to music also connects with the approach of Well Living House: placing Indigenous knowledge at its core. For the fundraiser, Dawn developed an interactive workshop that incorporated language and blood memory co-creating original music with participants. Dawn said she prefers to look at ways of “re-enculturating” Onkwehonweneha (Indigenous ways) rather than “decolonizing”. I had the opportunity to sit down with Dawn the following day to get her take on being a Kanienke’haka classical musician:
MM: Where did you grow up?
DA: I grew up in New York, Long Island mostly.
MM: When did you start playing the cello?
DA: My father is a jazz drummer, when I was a baby, the story was that I’d always fall asleep on his drums when he was playing. I’ve always been around music, I danced a lot, I took piano when I was younger. In school I picked cello, though I didn’t really get serious about it until later, around the age of seventeen.
MM: What was it about the cello that drew you to it?
DA: I wanted to play the flute, but there were too many flautists, and my scores were so high for pitch that they told me I needed to play a string instrument. Now it really suits me so well, except for carrying it, but the rest of it really does suit me. It’s sort of like a person, and I get to be around it, and I love the feeling of being around it. Also, it has a vocal range that is very similar to the human voice, and as you notice I like to play in a bunch of different styles. I’ll play contemporary music like jazz, and rock, but of course I’ve also played a lot of classical as well. Now I primarily play native classical, or my own stuff, which is mostly world-music-based, pop-based.
MM: What are some of the influences informing your various styles of playing?
DA: Definitely Jimi Hendrix, I love him, and I love playing him. Also Yo-Yo Ma is like an alien, I mean he is so amazing, everything he can do, but he also has a big heart—he’s very generous with how he plays for people, he’s very generous with his time. And then, going back to all my ceremonies, ‘cause I went back to that later in life, I’m learning all of that old music, and that whole soundscape has really become a part of my soundscape in my head. I do improvise a lot, I toured for about ten years with a string quartet playing the Delta Blues, and I also toured with a Persian Funk band, and played a lot of Sufi music and Persian funk. I just love working with people from other traditions, and especially studying their sacred music. I feel like all music is spiritual, honestly, it has a spiritual element, but to really go into the sacred traditions, not in a new age way, but being alive in the world, being real.
MM: Can you talk about language and how it informs your creative process?
DA: I started learning by tapes because I didn’t know where to study it when I was in highschool. Finally Tom Porter opened up Kanatsiohareke and I took classes there for years. The more I learn the language, the more it changes me. The whole vibration of the sounds, and also the worldview embedded in the language is so profound, that even just learning one word and using it in your life, really can change you—well at least, I found for me—it really opens me up. It triggers cultural memory, but also how you live in the world. Now in the morning I do the Thanksgiving Address, I can’t imagine not being connected in my world without that.
In my music, every piece I write I try to have some Mohawk in it. It doesn’t always happen, but for most songs, I try to do this. In my song Otsiketa I just use that word which means sugar or honey or sweet one, and I’ll use the word iotsistohkwarónnion, which means stars – so those two words just in one song, even if the rest is in English but the concepts are Mohawk, it has that vibration. People really do like to learn a word or two in Mohawk, even if they themselves are not Mohawk, because there is something so profound in the language.
MM: As someone who has traveled so much, how do people in other parts of the world relate to you as a Kanienke’haka musician?
DA: It’s interesting because a lot of times you’re breaking stereotypes, in a polite way of course. But with musicians, they are just so fascinated by music; they just want to know all about it. Like, how do you do your ceremonies, especially the other sacred musicians I have worked with, and we have a lot of similarities in our ceremonies, but we also really respect each other’s differences. The way we relate to our teachers and Elders, in Northern India, Tibet, Iran—there are a lot of similarities with how we respect our Elders.
MM: What about in the classical music world?
DA: As soon as you say Native American classical music, you’re put into that category—and people often don’t understand what that is, don’t even realize we exist or are alive, let alone are making new music. A lot of us don’t just write in classical though, we really do cross genres, but sometimes you have to be careful because you can get pegged to only play Native music or in a Native program. I wish we did have more Native programs.
MM: What is “classical Native” music?
DA: Some people say it has to be notated, it has to have some form of notation, so not an improvised piece, or it’s not folkloric, or traditional, its not commercial…it’s easier sometimes to say what it’s not. You know, we might add a native flute or a drum to the whole symphony, but it’s still notated. With Native Classical, what I think makes it different from other classical, is thematically what we do is different. We will have sounds from our histories that we enculturate, in addition to other sounds. We may have sounds of drums, or rattles, even if we don’t write for those, or certain rhythms or melodies that are just part of who we are. I’ve been writing a series of pieces that have narration of famous speeches written by Natives. One piece is written for a Western flute ensemble with a Native flute concerto. Or, I will have a piece where I have the audience dancing a stomp dance with the chamber ensemble in the centre, playing. Breaking boundaries for me is really important. Also we have politics in a lot of our music, Indigenous politics, but there is also Indigenous humour. There are certain elements that we have that are part of our cosmology and worldview.
MM: How important is it that music be a bridge politically, culturally and socially?
DA: I just finished my doctorate in ethnomusicology, and in ethnomusicology they say that music is not a universal language, it may be universal but it’s not a language because it can’t communicate the same thing to everybody. And recently I performed with this very famous Sufi musician, Humayun Khan. He is from Afghanistan, very beautiful, very spiritual man—and he says that music is a universal language. He is being asked to tour around Palestine, which is pretty big, and he does it with total love. As a Mohawk woman, we are about peace, and I started thinking about this question of music as a universal language, and you know, language can never communicate exactly—I mean, a word I say to you could mean something completely different to you than it does to me, so then I thought, what is an academic understanding of language? Because if music communicates emotion, I do feel like it is a way to reach people on a deeper level, instead of just in their head, because when we get in our head we get stuck in things like dogma, racism, stereotypes, politics, but when we go to our heart, it’s completely different. So I am really rethinking this idea of music as a universal language.
Check out Dawn Avery’s latest single, My Heart Is Strong from her upcoming release 50 Shades of Red coming in June.
Rarely are performers as at home in Lincoln Center as they are in a longhouse. Of Mohawk descent, Dawn Avery’s Indian name is Ieriho:kwats and she wears the turtle clan. Composer, cellist, vocalist, educator and GRAMMY nominated performer, Dawn Avery, has worked with musical luminaries Luciano Pavarotti, Sting, John Cale, John Cage, R. Carlos Nakai and Joanne Shenandoah. She’s toured around the world playing Delta Blues with the Soldier String Quartet, Persian Funk with Sussan Deyhim, and opera with the New York City Opera Company. She’s committed to Indigenous language and cultural preservation as a musician, educator and participant of longhouse ceremonies. Dawn Avery tours with the North American Indian Cello Project, in which she premieres contemporary classical works by Native composers and is currently touring for her recent recording, Rapidly Approaching Ecstasy: Music for Meditation & Movement. Her CDs have won several awards including nominations in the Indian Summer Awards, New Mexico Music Awards, and Native American Music Awards. The music can be heard on award-winning films: The Smithsonian’s “Always Becoming” by Nora Naranjo-Morse and “We Don’t Speak English: Indian Boarding Schools,” and “Don’t Get Sick After June: Indian Health Care” by Rich/Heape Films. Dawn is currently working on a doctoral dissertation at the University of Maryland in ethnomusicology on Classical Native American music. Nurturing future generations, Dawn Avery is a professor at Montgomery College and won United States Professor of the Year in 2012.