Native American Musician Keith Secola Chats With Around the Mall

Musician Keith Secola has played his unique blend of music all over the world and this weekend he graces the National Museum of the American Indian's 2009 Indian Summer Showcase. I was fortunate to be able to sit down for a phone chat with Keith about his work and the projects he has on the horizon.

Your song "NDN Kars" is the most requested song on Native radio in the U.S. and Canada. How did you arrive at that song’s unique sound?

The song is a blend of American music: rock and roll and Native American drum music. For me, the song is like Hiawatha and Minnehaha—it’s a real love affair between the bass drum and the kick drum and the Indian drum.

Your music draws on many musical styles such as rock, R&B, folk and traditional Native American music. Why did you decide to blend sounds that come from different cultures and time periods?

Our musical roots are so vast. As I was growing up and after I traveled for a bit, I heard other kinds of world music. It was then that I knew that I wanted to take my native roots and use that as a place to ground my work and from there, bridge out and begin blending musical beats from other cultures—while at the same time retaining a sense of identity.

How would you describe your target audience?

I’d categorize my music as Native Americana and old people like my music as well as young people. Like this week I had children playing with me on stage and then I had an elder, so it’s really a beautiful genre to work in. It’s hard to look at my style of music and say it’s geared toward a certain demographic. But of course, some of the musical demographics hold true across cultures. For example, young people like hip-hop, rock, pop and maybe the older crowd likes country and folk and things like that. So if you can blend those styles together in such a way that all those audiences are open to hearing your sound, I think that’s pretty cool.

What artists have influenced you as a musician?

I would always say it was always Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Neil Young and John Lennon—all good singer songwriters. I’m also influenced by traditional music where you don’t hear names of people but you hear the music at gatherings at ceremonies.

I understand that you’re working on a rock opera, pieces of which you’ll be debuting at the Kennedy Center this August. Why did you want to write a rock opera?

I have been working on it a while. The title is called Seeds. You could call it a "frybread opera" or "Kokopelli’s blues."

I was doing some tracks with the drummer from the Doors, John Densmore, and we were working on this track called "Kokopelli’s Blues" and the song explores the idea of Kokopelli coming back to Earth and seeing how his image is exploited. So this opened up a kind of story where Kokopelli has the blues and he goes on a hero’s journey.

I have about 20 songs written for the opera and I’m starting to edit and this winter I’m working to start putting the pieces together so I can bring it to life as a full theater piece.

How did you begin creating a musical piece of this length?

I have a little piano in my house and that’s where I start writing the songs. It’s just writing drafts all the time, refining, and redefining your plot and your storyline. I think at the beginning, artists will always impose their own ego on a project to some extent because all we know is our own, individual understanding of the world around us. But after a while, the music starts taking over and the music starts unfolding the plot for you and it will make decisions for you. It’s a divine type of thing where songs come to you. Later, I have to go back and help the music a bit by organizing it a bit more. That’s how I write.

As a Native American songwriter, you have to be a bit metaphoric in how we write. I think that the songwriter will generally lead people to a certain, brutal truth and invite them to seriously think about where we are in this day and age and ask them to understand Native American history. Music is about sharing some love and dancing and singing in the here and now. I don’t want to leave people in the guilt of the past—I’m much more interested in resolving those issues—the healing of America.

What has been your most memorable moment in the music business?

Playing music with people throughout the years has always been memorable and I think the best things are coming. I have highlights throughout my career almost too numerous to name because I’m so grateful for those experiences. I played a concert with a country artist who’s big in Canada—Crystal Shawanda. In November one of my highlights was performing with Bonnie Raitt—just her and I for a song. Playing with John Densmore from the Doors was always a highlight for me and knowing people like U2 and being sought out and getting encouragement from other artists has been very meaningful to me.

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