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Reviewed by:
  • Beautiful Beyond: Christian Songs in Native Languages
  • Elaine Keillor
Beautiful Beyond: Christian Songs in Native Languages, 2004. Produced by Howard Bass and presented by the National Museum of the American Indian. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, CD (1), SFW CD 40480.

This interesting recorded document was organized to coincide with the opening of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. It contains thirty-three tracks of music connected with Christianity and sung in fifteen different languages: Cherokee, Choctaw, Comanche, Creek, Hawaiian, Hopi, Kiowa, Mohawk, Navajo, Oneida, Ojibwe, Seminole, Sioux, Tewa (Tano), and Yup'ik. The three opening essays in the booklet—written by Richard West Jr., Gerald L. Hill, and Edward Wapp Wahpeconiah—stress how the adoption of Christianity played a role in the retention of Native languages through missionary translations of scripture and hymn texts. While West presents his experience with the Baptist religion while growing up in his Cheyenne home, Hill and Wahpeconiah stress the range of styles to be encountered, a diversity that resulted from the varied forms of Christianity introduced by missionaries.

Because of the variety of religious influences experienced by indigenous cultures, the tracks have been chosen to give a sampling of different musical styles resulting from the encounter between Christianity and Native traditions over the past four hundred years. The first six tracks have many similarities with standard powwow songs—that is, a call-and-response structure usually repeated four times with a wide, descending melodic contour. Basically monophonic (with only a single pitch heard at one time), these renditions sometimes have a doubling of the pitch at the octave above, either by women's voices or male voices in the response sections. Another track that is reflective of a particular native tradition is "Ke Aloha O Ka Haka," a hymn written by the deposed Hawaiian Queen Lili'uokalani on March 22, 1895.

The short portion of the Tewa Mass included on this compilation does not seem to be an adaptation of a Franciscan mass setting, unlike late-seventeenth-century Abenaki-language versions found on Chant de la Jerusalem des terres froides: Québec—Montréal Indiens Abenakis (K617, 1995). Unfortunately, the notes give no indication of the origin of the Tewa Mass, but the monophonic vocal melodic line has an accompaniment of electronic piano, drum, and rattles.

Christian missions spread the practice of part singing, or singing in harmony, among indigenous groups in North America. For example, two-part singing was introduced to the Abenaki in 1685. By 1699, written reports by French visitors and settlers refer to how beautifully both men's and women's choirs sang in three or even four parts. Some reports even state that Abenaki church singing was better than that heard in France. Most of the remaining tracks of Beautiful Beyond illustrate various forms of two-, three-, or four-part singing introduced by missionaries. Among the most intriguing examples are those sung in Yup'ik based on liturgy of the Russian Orthodox Church. These consist of unaccompanied recitation in four parts, with the pitches usually changing only near the end of a textual line. Another interesting unaccompanied vocal presentation is that of the Cherokee. These examples show evidence of "southern harmony," a form of church singing that survived in the southeastern United States through camp meetings in the nineteenth century and through publications such as Southern Harmony, whose first edition appeared in 1835 in South Carolina. In southern harmony style, the unaccompanied singers split into three or four parts, with the melody sung by the tenor voices. Often, one part of the choir will make a response, while the remainder sustains a three- or four-note chord. Portions sung by a soloist make this style somewhat more reminiscent of the Native-modeled [End Page 356] renditions discussed at the beginning of this review.

Unfortunately, the liner notes often do not give details about the instrumental accompaniments that are occasionally used. These instruments vary from what seems to be an autoharp in track 16, an Oneida version of "Rock of Ages," to organ, guitar, or piano on other tracks. Does Walter Calhoun accompany himself on the banjo for "Guide Me, Jehovah" on track 27? No texts...


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