Sharon Burch: The Blessing Way

Sharon Burch, Navaho folk singer and songwriter, is the daughter of a German father and a Navaho mother; for her, growing up bi-cultural was a blessing. "My grandfather was a Navaho healer who followed the Blessing Way. He had a very positive approach to life," Burch said, speaking from her Northern California home. "He brought my mother up to respect Indians and non-Indians, and taught us not to be afraid of what happens in this life, because in the final account, everything turns back to beauty."

In her music and her life, Burch has kept to the Blessing Way, finding a way to balance Navaho traditions with the demands of the modern non-Indian world. "People think I'm primarily a musician, but my main priority is my family. I work with developmentally disabled people - children and adults - who have special needs. That's really what I do, although right now I'm on maternity leave with my second child.

"People tell me 'The music is wonderful, why don't you do it full time?' It's to maintain balance in my life. I don't want the music to be work, I want it to be a gift. When I'm asked to do a show, I do it, but don't look for venues. I don't have a career plan."

Burch has recorded three albums for Canyon Records, including Touch the Sweet Earth, winner of the 1996 Indie Grammy for Best Native American Recording, and while her music pays respect to her traditional Navaho childhood, it also reflects her bi-cultural outlook, combining Navaho words and melodies with western guitar styles.

"I grew up traveling with my mom and granddad to the ceremonies my grandfather conducted. They tell me I joined in the singing as a child, and although I don't remember that, I do remember the sound of the music, bouncing off of the walls of the hogans and surrounding me."

In college Burch began singing at folk festivals, although she said she had terrible bouts with stage fright. In 1980 she met A. Paul Ortega, who said he wanted to make a record with her. "I idolized him," Burch said, "but I told him 'You've never heard me sing.' He said 'I know these things.' I found out later he's an Apache medicine man, so we started working on an album, which took about four years to do."

Burch worked on The Blessing Ways between gigs with Ortega's band. She sang backup and eventually got a solo spot. At that point, she decided she wanted to create her own songs, based on the teachings of her grandfather.

"I asked my grandfather if I could use these songs, or my interpretations of them. He said I could." Yazzie Girl Burch's first solo album, included traditional chants set to music by Burch as well as her own compositions. Her honey soaked alto and spare guitar accompaniment made the album a treat for both Navaho and non-Indian ears. "I sing in Navaho to pay respect to my family, the earth and the language I was raised in. I didn't speak English till I was in Kindergarten and I still have aunts that don't speak any English, and those women are very important to me.

"The songs help me keep balance. When I'm angry or the tension builds up, I put on the albums and remember my grandfather's words. It's o.k. to experience the negative, as long as it's in balance.

"I sometimes think about people who want to protect their children from the world. They send kids to restricted schools, and so it's unfair to the child. They should be exposed to everything, because the whole world is ours and I want my children to experience it all. Having a German father and Native mother helped me understand that a human can relate to all people, not just your own kind. The whole planet is ours; there should be no boundaries."

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j. poet is the music editor for Indian Artists magazine. He also writes about world music, blues, jazz, folk and pop culture for a variety of national, international and online publications. Feedback, offers of new product or queries? <>

Sharon Burch on the Canyon Records Productions site.

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