To award-winning musician Arvel Bird, Southern Paiute/Métis, music is fun, soothing, inspirational and deeply spiritual.
“When I perform I am connecting myself to the source of all Creation and that connection is coming through the music, through my heart, to the listener's heart and that person—if they are paying attention—is having the same connection, alignment, as I am having and we are sharing that experience together. That is my gift, my medicine. That is why I love to play music and especially my original compositions, because that is what my life’s purpose is about.”
Bird, dubbed by his fans as the “Lord of Strings,” has wowed crowds by weaving Celtic and Native American traditions through music, a style known as Celtic Fusion. His mastery of both the Native American flute and the Celtic violin are remarkable.
ICTMN caught up with him in Arizona while he was gearing up for a busy calendar year, which includes working on four more albums and tours that will take him all across Turtle Island. (He will be performing May 11 and 12 at the 24th Annual Cherokee County Indian Festival & Mother’s Day Powwow in Canton, Georgia.)
Where does Arvel Bird fit in the world of pow wow?
Well, I do like to think I shake that scene up a bit. People want to feel their own connection to Native America; maybe they feel it through their own bloodline or they feel it in their heart, so when they hear my Native or Celtic Fusion music, they get it.
At first pow wow organizers were skeptical. They didn't see how the violin fit in at all; but that’s because they didn't know the history of Native American fiddling. It has become part of the tribal cultures in many parts of North, Central and South America.
How were you able to connect Celtic and Native American traditions?
It started musically but as I studied more about the two cultures, I found more similarities than I realized. Like the indigenous tribes of North America, at various times, the Scots and the Irish both lost their land, their culture, language, spirituality; and then the blend of the music made sense. I resonate with both cultures. I don’t know if it was because of my dual heritage or because the music just naturally took me there, but the result was kind of like Braveheart meets Last of the Mohicans . . . at Woodstock.
What’s with you and the violin?
From the time I was 9, I really liked to play my violin. My family was —how do you say it—dysfunctional, so spending time in my room practicing the violin was what I was ‘supposed to’ be doing. It gave me a buffer from the chaos, confusion, and turmoil in my home. I was withdrawn, timid, shy, or scared most of the time. I was small for my age and I had trouble talking or expressing myself. I wasn't coordinated or good at sports. I had a very low self-esteem. I lived in an imaginary world within my mind. The violin was my refuge and the music only fueled my imagination. It healed me, it soothed me, it was the one thing in life that I loved and knew I wanted to do forever. The violin is a magical instrument that has brought me everything in life that I've ever wanted and taken me around the world.
How have your Native roots influenced you in your career?
Before I recorded my Animal Totems CD in 2002, I had written most of what developed into the 2009 Tribal Music Suite: Journey of a Paiute, which won two Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards. I began composing that right after college, but as I played it every day to hear what would come next, something very deep inside of me happened. I felt a connection to a past life: a group of ancestors, a genetic belief, a historical belief, a vision of a person and his life in an ancient time, a tribal time. It was a story I later came to call the Journey of a Paiute. As I played it, sometimes the music would dictate the story and sometimes the story would dictate the music. It was a fascinating, emotional journey of connecting to a deeper place with the memory carried by my DNA. Still, to this day it is hard for me to talk about the story without becoming emotional.
Why do you say Titanic Centennial is one of the most emotional albums you’ve recorded?
Gosh, well, the story of the Titanic was emotional to begin with and as I learned more and more about the passengers–like all the third class Irish passengers, the musicians, the captain, the wealthy, the workers–they all had hopes and dreams and many of them were on that ship to come to America to leave the religious, economic and social oppression that was in play at that time in history. I also think about the survivors’ recounting that Wallace Hartley and his band played on deck in 32-degree weather as the ship was sinking to soothe the passengers who knew they were going to die and the survivors who were just as terrified. Could I have done that? Would I have been that brave? I like to think I would have gone down as they did, doing what I love!
Where is Arvel Bird right now—in heart and mind?
I'm in a great place now. My wife and I have been on the road full time for nearly 10 years and this winter we came to a crossroads of deciding whether we wanted to give up that frenetic pace of 50,000-60,000 miles a year on the road doing about 160 shows or selling our nice big motor home and buying a home somewhere. As Kimberly and I took about two weeks and thought and visualized seriously about what our lives would be like— to not see and visit with all the people we see, play all the different venues, travel around the world, basically connecting with other lives the way we have been—we just couldn't see ourselves doing it, at this time. We didn't think the Creator or universe was supporting that idea, not yet. The truth is this type of lifestyle is not conducive to sitting around thinking about things. It is a very action-oriented lifestyle and so we had to get to the place where we move with grace and ease within our chosen lifestyle.
So, what now?
After much soul-searching, we knew we had some things emotionally and spiritually to work on, and we did. We decided to simplify our lives and eliminate from our lives what was no longer a positive aspect of our lives—things, people, food, ideas, beliefs and actions. That was huge! That opened up a lot of other good things to happen, new ideas, gigs, time off to visit with friends. Like this week, taking a desert day trip with Dolan Ellis, Arizona’s Official State Balladeer and original member of New Christy Minstrels, and his wife Merilee, to his favorite place out by the Superstition Mountains, playing music, enjoying the desert wildflowers now in bloom. We never would have made time to do something fun like that before.
What’s next on your journey?
Continue to simplify our life on the road, continue to make it fun and enjoyable and meet as many people as we can. I'm working on four albums, including Animal Totems 3 and a Christmas CD. I posted on Facebook that I was looking for ideas for Animal Totems 3 and I received over 200 suggestions, many were duplicates, which told me the most important to many people. This could be a multi-disk! Anyway, I’ll probably end up recording most of these on the road but I'm not gonna stress over it—grace and ease.
What's your dream performance?
My dream of bringing a full stage production to the country and the world with Native American and Celtic dancers, pow wow drumming, bag pipes, fiddle, Native American flutes and Irish whistles, percussion and stories of the marriage between both sides of my heritage: the Native American and the Celtic cultures. It is called: “Many Clans, Many Tribes, One Fire.” The Fire is my passion for music.