When he was eight Ansel Deon was just like the other kids at the powwow, running around, tossing back Cokes, and getting in the elders' hair. When he turned nine, he turned serious. He asked for lessons in traditional-style singing, and plenty of elders, starting with his father, were happy to teach him. "We call 'em our powwow dads, or uncles. There's a bunch of them."
The lessons paid off. Now 23 and as big as a wrestler, Deon works a day job as culture coordinator at the American Indian Center and is a professional singer with the group Shki Bmaadzi (the name means "New Beginning" in Ojibwa). The band is one of four Chicago singing groups, or "drums," that ply the powwow circuit. There's plenty of work: every weekend, somewhere in North America, including Alaska and Hawaii, there's a powwow going on. In its three years of existence, Shki Bmaadzi has played at events around the midwest, Arizona, and Utah, where it won a contest for "best drum." Sometimes it appears with a full complement of 12 members, sometimes with a core group of Deon and three others. He's sung for audiences of 100 and for 50,000 at Soldier Field.
Most of the gigs are small. The work pays, but not well. "If you get invited to a powwow you get a hotel room, they'll pay for your gas, and sometimes you'll actually turn a profit," Deon says. "But not all the time. What I'm doing here is sharing."
Powwows are not exclusive affairs and never were. They have always been open to a variety of people, as traditional gatherings of tribes and as public entertainments. To the uninitiated, the words to the songs don't sound like words, and mostly the uninitiated are right. Over a hundred years ago lyrics were dropped from many songs in favor of sounds, or what are called "vocables." Deon says this came about out of necessity, "when we had to join up to fight the government.
"Whenever you would go to make peace with another tribe, we don't know each other's tribe's language, because everybody's different. You couldn't just go up there and start singing a word song in your language to another tribe, so we had to find a way to communicate with each other."
The results are songs understood by tune, tone, and beat. "That's how these vocables came around, because that's a way to communicate, and that's a way that we can understand each other. In a way, it worked back then."
Shki Bmaadzi sings a mix of Native American languages, not just vocables. Its songs are contemporary--they've all been made (not written down) within the past 20 years. "We don't have a songbook," Deon explains. "The songbook is in our head."
There's no particular Chicago style, but there are two distinct methods of powwow singing. "Southern singing is a low tone, sort of like Barry White," Deon says. "The northern tone is high, sort of like Prince." Shki Bmaadzi sings northern style, but Deon says, "I can also go southern.
"There's a whole bunch of different songs, you've just got to know which is the right one," he says. "Some of the songs are about powwows, warriors; some songs are about 'come on people, come out and dance.'" Some drums add English words to vocables. "What people are doing now is trying to make these songs more mainstream. You got Native American rappers, Native American blues bands." Deon mentions the Black Lodge Singers, who have released a children's CD on Canyon Records with versions of "Mighty Mouse" and "The Flintstones" that are completely different from those used on the cartoons. The Black Lodge Singers' "Flintstones" is sung to a fast beat. The lyrics are "Oh ah hey, the Flintstones hah, the Flintstones hah....They all say yabba-dabba-do, yabba-dabba-do. Oh ah hey."
The words to "Mighty Mouse" go "Oh my gosh, it's Mighty Mouse." (Check out canyonrecords.com for snippets of these songs--you won't be disappointed.)
But by and large, powwow traditions have remained steadfast. Songs are based on drumming--which includes styles called the "crow hop" (a steady beat) and "side steps" (varying beats)--and all the drumming is based on the heartbeat. Like most of the singing groups, Shki Bmaadzi is all male. "There are girl groups out there," Deon says, "but sometimes that's not allowed.
"Usually the women sit behind us, or stand behind us," he explains. "The women gave us the drum, so, since the women make the babies, the heartbeat, by giving us this drum they said, we're not going to sit with you--you have to create that heartbeat too. That's why they stand behind us, to make sure we do it right."
Since winning the contest in Utah last summer, Shki Bmaadzi has been getting out more. It's played Ravinia, and it will be performing at the American Indian Center's 48th annual powwow this weekend at the UIC Pavilion. It's considering upcoming gigs in New Mexico and Arizona, and it will be the main drum at the next powwow in Utah. But its members, like most powwow singers, aren't in it for the recognition.
"We are humble people," Deon says. "Everybody has to remember that we're still here, we're not dead, we're not all on reservations, so we have to let everybody else know.
"I like it because we're singing for the family, the people. You're not supposed to be singing for yourself, 'cause the way you'll be singing is probably going to heal somebody--it's that connection to the past. You are living in this contemporary world, but we have to remember our past, and you can remember that past by singing.
"I was a little kid running around and everybody remembers me as that, so once I started singing, it was, 'Oh, remember Ansel running around? Now look at him.' So it makes you happy."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Audrey Cho.