In 2011, musician Keith Secola joined the iconic ranks of Jimi Hendrix, Hank Willams, Crystal Gayle and Richie Valens in the Native American Music Hall of Fame. Winner of seven Native American Music Awards, Secola is now expanding his repertoire with a pop-style opera that he hopes will bring an important message to America. His most recent album, Life Is Grand, is his seventh, and includes an updated punk version of “NDN Kars” and “Say Your Name”, a song about the boarding schools.
Secola was interviewed the morning after he played a show on Friday, December 12, at the Native American Children’s Benefit Concert held at the John T. Vucurevich Center in Rapid City, South Dakota. The event was to raise toys for children.
How was the show last night? How was the crowd?
Good! The shows are growing, more awareness is happening. Barriers are falling and it seems like we are all stuck in this economical boat together; people are starting to realize we better wake up.
I am seeing a large mixture of people, which is good for Native artists because we need to bust out and get into the mainstream more, but I don’t ever want to do concerts without attracting our Native people.
Where was the biggest venue you ever played?
In the ‘90s I played with Nirvana, and David Bowie was on the bill. It was a festival in Denmark, with 20,000 people singing "Ya Heya Hey," like that. That was great. I've been in the underground and crossing over more and more into mainstream.
How do you see your music crossing into the mainstream?
I think the new album (Life Is Grand) is going to be the quintessential protest album of 2012, only I have to disguise it, like Dickens' Christmas Carol. I have a rock opera called Seeds, and there are marginal creatures and adult fantasy. The heroine was sent by the grandfathers to bring virtues to this earth because she is sick.
So it’s social commentary?
What was your process in writing the opera?
It took years of writing, and writing is difficult! I started writing it about six, seven years ago. The songs have lyrics and melody, and it’s not some new age, ‘Look at this Indian with the flute’ and the audience fills it in. This has dialogue, long, meaningful, songs, with to-the-point lyrics.
That was the hard part, trying to write without being pretentious about it, because we can’t be so serious, either. You have to write with a sense of humor, and also have to look at the criteria — one, Is it entertaining? Two, is it philosophical? Three, is it spiritual in nature? And four, is it metaphysical in nature, so people can draw their own meaning to it?
The first song is called “Song For The Marginals”. And we say, "Come out, come out marginal creatures! Now is the time to dance under the sun, because we have been dancing under the full moon for a long time, and now it is our time to reclaim the sun!"
So is that how you see this time of change for the world?
Well, I think the best thing we can do is transform ourselves. The most powerful thing we can do is become like, from night to day. For our native people, it’s hard not to abandon our consciousness because we are so ingrained to take care of each other.
It is so ironic to be a self promoter. You know, you have to toot your own horn, you have to step in front of people and that is just not our ways. For me, my career has taken a long, uphill swing, but it is a long, slanted hill and I am still going up and still becoming vital.
What are some of the challenges of becoming successful?
As Native people, we have become as fearful of success as failure. You mean I can have money in my bank account, you know, without thinking about others? Prosperity, often times, it gets replaced with what we think of as greed. The whole material wealth thing is kind of a symbol of a weak human being, like we are too tied to this material world. So you know, there are so many cultural things that crisscross.
Does religion play a part of any of that?
One thing I think is beautiful is the pluralism on the reservations, for instance my friends the Brave Hearts-Iron Crow. When the mom passed away, she had a minister, a gospel band playing rock music, a Lakota medicine man, the drum. There is such a pluralism that exists in Indian Country. At the same time, I see where people are very religious, and they are stuck in the dogma about that.
I think we can get beyond religion by becoming spiritualists, we can become mystics where we don’t have to see so much color of skin or race, and you can see people as clear. If you stand in a puddle of water long enough, even rubber boots will leak, and America has been standing in this puddle for two centuries and more. So the permutation of the bohemian cultures, the hippies, the Indians, we’re starting to multiply.
My good friend John Dinsmore from The Doors told me that the silence in salsa music is for the sorrow of the earth. Even though it is upbeat, the music has hesitation to it, and it is to remind people to remember the sorrow remains in the earth even when you have prosperity.
Do you have message for the world that needs to be heard?
I think we are seeing the mystery beginning to unfold before our very eyes. The music is going to unfold it for us. The muse is behind it, and the muse is not going to come into the room if there is a lot of egotism, so when you are writing a song you have to be humble, you have to be real gentle with that creative spirit. It only comes when there are pure and good feelings, sincerity. It leaves the room when the ego is so involved and thinking that I am the one — but she will open up doors for you, she will show you things.
That is why I say the mystery is going to unfold before our eyes: the mystery of love. And it ain’t such a mystery. It ain’t so mystical. It’s so simple, really. It’s not complicated. Happiness is not complicated. Kindness is not complicated. Love is not complicated. It is something we were born to do.
For more on Keith Secola, visit www.secola.com