Robert Mirabal: Singing the Truth

Robert Mirabal, has been one of the leaders of the Native Flute renaissance. Mirabal's style is more "traditional" and less commercial than many of his contemporaries, building his melodies on the rituals that have surrounded him all of his life at Taos Pueblo, where he was born and still resides. "My culture doesn't allow me to record anything traditional," Mirabal said by phone from the home he shares with his partner Dawn and their nine month old daughter. "What I create comes out of my body and soul, in a desire to take care of the spirits of the earth."

After half a dozen well regarded flute albums, Mirabal takes his music in a brilliant new direction on his new album, Mirabal. It's a full blown celebration of popular music - rock, folk, hip-hop, African, techno and more - albeit with a strong Native slant. "This music comes out of my secret desire to be a rock star," Mirabal joked. "When I was a kid I'd go off to a little spot I knew and play air guitar. I was too shy to perform in public, so I played for the trees."

Mirabal said the new album started taking shape two years ago when he met Mark Andes, former bass player for the '60s rock band Spirit. "Mark's partner, Eliza Gilkyson is a good friend of mine. She introduced us, and we really hit it off." Mirabal and Andes began jamming several times a week, and creative sparks flew. As the melodies took shape, Mirabal reshaped the poems and stories in his journal for the lyrics. "There's a traditional drummer I knew, Reynaldo Lujan, who has a wide knowledge of indigenous styles from all over the Earth. We invited him in, and after the songs were written, we got a band together and started playing. The response was good," Mirabal said modestly.

Meanwhile, Mirabal was recording Land, his first album for Warner's Western label. At the end of the sessions, he told producer Michael Wanchic that he thought he'd taken the flute as far as it could go. Wanchic asked Mirabal what else he had in mind. "I had my keyboard with me, so I brought it in and played 'Tony and Allison,' a song I started writing years before, while hitch hiking through Utah. I saw a newspaper blowing down the road and it had a story in it about an old Indian man who'd found a skeleton. There was a picture of the old man standing in a desolate landscape; under the picture he was quoted - 'You could die out here and never be found.' That phrase haunted me. I wrote a short story about the death of that skeleton, and put it to this hip-hop rhythm I'd come up with."

When Mirabal played "Tony and Allison," Wanchic he flipped. After Mirabal and Andes showed him some of the other new tunes, Wanchic gave the project a green light, and allowed Mirabal complete creative control.

People who know Mirabal's mellow flute work will be surprised, if not shocked, buy the sounds he wrenches of the instrument on this recording. He makes the flute scream with anger, cry with loneliness, shriek with pain. "I'm not trying to dwell on the negative, but I wanted to make an album that explores all of the things people experience, love, hate, fear, confusion, and especially the loneliness that seems to be so pervasive in modern society. And I wanted it to have a rock'n'roll edge." The backing band on Mirabal has an edge that's as sharp as a razor. Players include John Mellencamp's lead guitarist Andy York, a Mellencamp alumnus currently touring with John Fogarty, trap drummer Kenny Arnoff, Reynaldo Lujan on traditional percussion, Andes on bass and Mirabal on keyboards, acoustic guitar and vocals.

"We tried some real cutting edge stuff," Mirabal said. "The vocals on 'Witch Hunt,' for example, are built on three different vocal samples. One is a drone, one is making percussive sounds, and one is a high falsetto. The rhythm is from a Celtic song and the vocal rhythms are 4/4, 3/4 and 6/7. I tried to make the breath audible too, to sound like it was a person being chased. It originally had lyrics about the killing of women during the witch hunts in Europe in the Middle Ages. The chorus said 'Have we evolved or are we still involved?'"
Even without the lyric, the song has a frantic, spooky feel. Junior Vasquez, the man who remixes Madonna's dance hits, has heard it and wants to try his hand at doing a club mix on the track. Warner and Mirabal are both waiting to see what he does with it.

Warners and Mirabal are both excited about the commercial potential of Mirabal, the album. Warner has hired a battery of publicists to work the album to radio and retail, and if it lives up to its potential, it may make Mirabal the first Native American rock star.

Mirabal came of age in a traditional family that was broken apart by government relocation policies. "I grew up with my grandparents and mom, an all woman family mostly. That was the classic thing in the '70s, a lot of relocation, children being taken from their homes by government and economics, marriages breaking up. I didn't have much connection with my father." Mirabal stayed in Taos to help care for his aging grandparents and went to the Indian school at the pueblo.

"They had a band there and I learned clarinet, sax, piano, drums, anything I could get my hands on, but it wasn't till I started playing flute at 18 that music took me over. Adam Turjillo, a man in the pueblo from my grandpa's society made flutes and donated one of them to a pow wow, and for some reason I really wanted that flute. The new age thing was getting big back then, and as soon as I began playing, people asked me to perform. They say the flute chooses you, and it certainly changed my life. Since then, I've spent most of my time traveling and playing music."

Mirabal made flute albums for several labels, including Warners, and his music took him all over Europe, North America, Russia and Japan. He said that his travels, and being exposed to the rhythms of other cultures had a profound effect on his own musical vision. He studied West African drumming, voodoo rhythms from Haiti, and Celtic music as well as immersing himself in rock, blues and hip-hop.

"I guess you could say the seed for [Mirabal] was planted when I was living in New York City. For a while I was in a multi-culti band. The keyboard player was from Haiti, the drummer was from Cape Verde, the guitarist from Senegal, and we were surrounded on all sides by hip hop, which really educated me about the groove. With my new band, what we do is try to create enough syncopation to let my language ride the groove, like a surfer riding the waves."

Mirabal said that coming from a minority, and being able to stand outside the dominant culture, also contributes to his sound, especially on this new record. "My first language is Taos, and even though I write lyrics in English, I use the language differently, and structure things in a metaphorical manner that's closer to the way my people use language. That and Mark's pop sense, and the interest we both have in world music, created what you hear on Mirabal."

Mirabal breaks down every American pop and folk style of the last two decades and reassembles with a distinctly Native American perspective, accented by touches from Aboriginal Australia and Africa. It's as good an album as you're likely to hear this year, and concludes with two memorable tunes "An Kah Na" and "Cyberspace Warrior."

"'An Kah Na' means 'My Mother,'" Mirabal explained. "It's based on a moonlight song, just a simple melodic vocal line that lets people hear the beauty and complexity of my Native language. If you live a traditional life you see things differently, spiritually and musically. It was an unexpected song."

"Cyberspace Warrior" is a flat out rocker that features some tasty Senegalese-style electric guitar by Andy York. "I wanted something that was fun," Mirabal said. "It's a bit of world, some rock, some alternative stuff, but it's all me. On a Sunday afternoon, if I take a ride in my car, I listen to the Native station, then dial over to some jazz, rock, oldies, rap, whatever. I don't know if I'm a rocker, but I love music and don't like the American tendency to categorize it. This album touches on all the music I've heard as I've traveled around the world."

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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? <>

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