By Kristi Kates
The dulcet sounds of the violin are perhaps not usually thought of as being part of Native American musical culture. But musician Arvel Bird is drawing on little-known history to bring native violin sounds into the spotlight.
Youre right - its not well-known as an instrument traditional to natives, Bird explains, but I understand that the violin was introduced to the indigenous people of North and South America beginning as early as 1689 by the Jesuit priests from Europe who brought the harp, guitar and violin so that they could have music for Mass on Sundays. So I think its safe to say that its been a tradition for the last 321 years. Almost 13 generations of some indigenous people have played the violin.
While the history is fascinating to Bird, it was the sound that drew him to the instrument.
I could go on about tribes and history and usage and music played, but that wasnt what got me interested in playing the violin or using it to express my heritage, he says, it had already become the voice of my music, so instead of singing or drumming or playing the flute, I simply applied/adapted the violin to my story-telling through music.
Bird, who was born in Idaho and raised in Utah and Arizona, studied classical music for 11 years while in school, eventually working under the tutelage of renowned Hungarian violinist Paul Roland. Soon, he found himself being drawn to and inspired by the Appalachian, bluegrass, and Celtic styles of music; so he decided to tackle crafting his own mix of sounds that would also incorporate his Native American heritage.
It was a tricky transition, but a deliberate and ongoing one, Bird says. I knew how to play the violin, but I didnt know where music came from, and so that became my goal. Classical playing is a great foundation for technique and training, but its very sterile and limiting when you play in an orchestra, and I knew I had a lot of my own music in me.
So, instead of learning more dead composers music, I quit taking music lessons, quit reading music, and began to explore other realms of music. As I began to incorporate the different styles into my own playing skills, it created my own fusion. That helped me to not compare myself with other people and players, allowed me to be myself and become my own musical artist. Now Im not trying to do what anyone else does, and no one else can do what I do -and I dont worry about that anymore, he smiles.
Today, Bird is an acclaimed musician in his own right, having received six nominations just this year at the ISMAs (the prestigious Indian Summer Music Awards, which will be awarded this September) - and he has had the opportunity to work with a wide range of fellow musicians, including two standout experiences with Glen Campbell and Loretta Lynn.
In the mid 80s, a band I was with won a big competition which landed us an opening spot for Alabama, Merle Haggard, and the Judds at the Phoenix Coliseum, Bird remembers. We were having a great time backstage in our dressing room after the show when in walks Glen Campbell, and he sat down to chat with us. Later that weekend we played in Cave Creek, Arizona, at a golf resort that Glen belonged to and happened to be at that day. We knew a few of his songs, so he got up and sang with us. Right there on the spot, he hired us to be his backup band - and I toured with him for almost six years. It was a great experience. During this time I moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where I auditioned for Loretta Lynn, who is also a wonderful person and very down to earth, funny and easy to get along with. Ive been fortunate to play with some incredible stars.
Birds albums get plenty of notice on their own, too; his latest set, Ride Indian Ride, was recorded in Nashville, with Birds goal being to honor the enduring spirit of the Indian motorcycle with a blues/rock style that uses both the violin and Native American flute as lead instruments.
I also decided to add songs with lyrics to the instrumentals on this CD, to give people something to sing along with, Bird explains, I recorded honor songs about some of my First Nations heroes like Geronimo, Crazy Horse, Chief Joseph, the Cherokee Lighthorse, and one for the patriot chiefs, who fought for the rights of their people in peace and wartime.
Bird says that hes inspired by any number of things - other composers, movies, books - and generally prefers writing in the mornings, after his structured practice sessions.
I start hearing a recurring piece of music start - a rhythm, a riff that adds color to a specific scene, he explains, when I feel ready, I normally book studio time in Nashville, where Im familiar with the studio engineers and musicians. The creative/writing process varies from project to project, but usually Ill start with a theme; the music itself is usually a reflection of my Native American (Southern Paiute) heritage and my Celtic roots. I also like to record music that honors the enduring spirit of the North American Indian, utilizing Native fiddling as well as Celtic fiddling.
If youre thinking that Birds compositions and songs contain plenty of colorful imagery, youd be right. Hes as much a storyteller as he is a musician. And his upcoming show in Charlevoix will showcase plenty of examples of both.
Fans have called the violin sounds cinematic and visual, which is what I was going for so that my audiences can take their own journey and find their own connection and identity to the Creator, Bird says.
I can promise the Charlevoix audience a concert which feels like a cross between Braveheart and Last of the Mohicans, he continues, mixed with some fiddle tunes and a few of my blues songs. What I hope happens is that they are transported for that two or three hour period into their own dreamworld, and take a musical journey around the world with me. Lastly, I never know who might be there that I can get up to perform with me, but Ill be looking!
Arvel Bird will perform in Charlevoix as part of the Black Cat Concert Series on Thursday, August 26 at 8 pm. Tickets ($15) and more info can be found at www.blackcatconcerts.com; more info on Arvel Bird can be found at www.arvelbird.com.