Taking the rhythmic and melodic qualities of traditional powwow music and adding contemporary modes of music production in the mix, Joe Rainey re-orchestrates and recontextualizes the ancient and Indigenous powwow song-forms in exciting and new in-between places. “It varies from what you would call traditional powwow singing, by stepping into its own lane.”
Collaborating with producer and artist Andrew Broder, who brought his multi-instrumentalist, turntablist sensibility to the project, Rainey has crafted a distinct take on this traditional music with bombastic, occasionally dark, and menacing electronics. Combined with soaring strings, the music on his debut album Niineta (2022) attains a transcendental and cinematic quality. Rewire has invited Rainey, Broder, and Netherlands-based string players Alistair Sung, Isa Goldschmeding, Jellantsje de Vries, and Thora Sveinsdóttir for a residency in The Hague to translate Niineta into a live show with strings. Prior to his performance, Rainey took some time to share his deep connection with this ancient musical form.
Can you recall your first memories of encountering and listening to powwow music? What kind of impact did that music have on you? The first memories I have of listening to powwow music are going to the local powwows in my community and witnessing them with my own eyes. Hearing the singers and hearing the drums are my earliest memories.
Considering the way Rewire 2023 reflects on Times and Territories as a theme in the context programme, could you expand on the temporality and locality of powwow music? Powwows are happening all the time and throughout the whole year. There are usually powwows in certain reservation communities. There are also powwows that happen in larger cities in the US and Canada.
At what point did you decide to not only study, but also participate in the creation and performing of this musical practice? I started singing when I was three or four years old, but I really started concentrating on what I was doing and learning by the time I was five or six.
What was the process like of familiarising yourself with and gaining mastery over the music? I would record powwows on my tape recorder and go home and listen to them religiously. I’ve found a lot of my techniques come from the singers that I usually listen to. In that sense, I was a teacher of my own voice, but I’ve had other teachers come along and also help me learn how to use my voice. However, recording on tapes really set me off to explore powwow music even further.
How do you think your modern practice of powwow relates to or diverges from its traditional roots? Powwows are social gatherings. They aren’t our private religious ceremonies. There are certain entities that transfer over to powwow arenas, but for the most part, individually, our tribes have their own respect for seasonal ceremonies, that happen to have ceremonial songs, and that fall under the umbrella term that is traditional powwow singing. It is contemporary if you want to look at the full spectrum of what native singing is. Powwow singing is a social public branch of that tree. I create music by singing powwow over my friends’ electronic beats. It varies from what you would call traditional powwow singing, by stepping into its own lane and portraying powwow singing with a different beat.
What role does collaboration and experimentation play in the way that you approach your musical practice? It plays a huge role in my approach to what I do with Andrew Broder. Yes, indeed I made an album with someone that is non-native but that’s what the point of collaborating is about: breaking down barriers and walking that line of familiarity and fear. Being conscious within your own abilities, and your own willingness to take chances, is a way to find what you’re really capable of, creatively speaking. I was willing to take that chance.
Joe Rainey & String Quartet perform on Sunday 9 April in the Nieuwe Kerk.