- Recording Culture: Powwow Music and the Aboriginal Recording Industry on the Northern Plains by Christopher A. Scales
Recording Culture: Powwow Music and the Aboriginal Recording Industry on the Northern Plains is a lively and engaging work of ethno-graphic interpretation. Its focus is on the music made, danced to, competitively judged, recorded, and circulated by present-day Native American and First Nations performers in, and beyond, the Northern Plains region of the United States and Canada. The book focuses on two domains that are now recursively connected—music composed for, and performed at, large-scale native dance events known as powwows and the recording industry that has arisen to mediate and circulate this music beyond individual performance contexts. As a study of indigenous music from the Great Plains region, the book fruitfully updates a literature (on Plains Indian musical practices) that is as old as the ethnographic disciplines themselves. As a study of indigenous recording practices, the book goes to the heart of a territory that has only been tentatively explored in previous ethnographies of Native American music. Christopher A. Scales very successfully bridges his two field sites—powwow grounds and recording studios—and, in doing so, effectively approaches an established topic from a fresh and productive vantage point.
The book is based on ethnographic field research undertaken in Winnipeg, elsewhere in Manitoba, and in adjacent areas of Canada and the US. Scales’ focus is not a particular native reservation, neighborhood, or community. Instead, his attention is divided between “the powwow trail” and a particular Winnipeg recording studio and record company that is a key center for the production and marketing of commercial recordings of powwow music. Scales traveled with singers, dancers, vendors, and other [End Page 287] participants from dance event to dance event within a large regional “performance circuit” (a social frame first theorized in Roark-Calnek 1977:525). The recording industry context is Winnipeg-based Arbor Records, where Scales apprenticed himself, thereby learning a great deal of technical, business, and social knowledge. During the course of his ethnographic work with the company, he recorded and produced a range of powwow recordings, gaining, in the process, unique knowledge of his subject.
A coda brings readers up to speed on more recent developments, but the book’s temporal frame is the period from 1998 to 2010. This was a period of significant change in the powwow music world, spanning the transition from the widespread use of cassette tapes to the rise of the CD (still a vital form in Indian Country) and the newer emergence of music made, bought, and sold (sometimes also pirated) in an all-digital, carrier-free environment. In terms of musical practices, this period was characterized by the rise of very large-scale powwow events in which singers and dancers could compete for cash prizes of unprecedented size. As Scales skillfully documents, an economic system, an aesthetic system, and a system of musical recording and distribution practices arose out of this scaling up of powwow events and the associated professionalization of powwow musical performance groups. Scales is very effective in his description of the contemporary powwow musical world on the Northern Plains (and he evidences basic awareness of the distinct, but linked, Southern Plains-centered powwow as well [Ellis 2003]). His descriptions of this music scene are nuanced and his interpretations are carefully constructed and argued. His account is based on a wide acquaintance with the world that he describes, but it relies specifically upon Scales’ friendship with, and education by, two prominent powwow singers and one non-native businessman who records and sells powwow music. The author’s ethno-graphic reporting is careful, giving due weight to the words and perspectives of his interlocutors.
The book’s title is polysemous. It evokes both the recording of cultural materials (as in the ethnographic recordings of outsiders, the auto-ethnographic [or ethno-ethnographic] documentary work of native peoples themselves, and the commercial recording process that leads to formally released albums) and the culture of recording as itself a...