LAWRENCE, Kan. – What started out as a group of college students forming a drum group a few years ago has resulted those same college students becoming a part of history.
The group, Tha Tribe had two songs featured on the Grammy-winning “Gathering of Nations” album, which took the very first, Best Native American Album Award.
“It’s awesome,” member Sam Cook said. “I just think it is a good feeling to be a part of something like that … It’s a good day today.”
Cook, Pawnee/Creek, and other members gathered at Haskell Indian Nations University to discuss their part in the historic award the day following their win. None of Tha Tribe had ever dreamed in early days of “experimentation” that the sound they were developing would become so popular.
Tha Tribe is unique. Although they started out as a “school” group, they have evolved into a top-notch and very popular drum group.
“We passed that level where it was no longer just a school activity but it became a part of our lives,” Wayne Silas, Menominee/Oneida lead singer, said. “It was no longer just a school activity, but a part of ourselves. We’ve taken it on a more personal level, it makes it hard for us to be successful and stick together because we come from all four directions.”
But somehow the group managed to stick together and be successful. As more and more initiates join the group from across the nation, the challenges of trying to all be in one place at the same time causes problems. But those same engagements are viewed by the singers as a sign they will be together again.
“We all have our families and it’s important that we be with them,” Silas said. “But this is our family, too, and when we have to be someplace to sing, we know we will be together again and that is important, too.”
Since Tha Tribe may or may not have all of its members together at a given event, their sound can range greatly from one pow wow to the next. “Sometimes they want us to ‘rock the house’ but we can’t because somebody is missing,” Cook said.
The Gathering of Nations Pow Wow was one of those special occasions when Tha Tribe and all the other singers came together to “rock the house” and incidentally help make history with the first Native American album to win a Grammy.
Although they are still reeling from the shock of being such a part of history, members of Tha Tribe said they could see that more changes will have to be made to include Native American sub-categories.
“Native American music is a broad title to describe this music,” Kenneth Corie, Santo Domingo Pueblo/Navajo, said. “There are flutists, solo singers, drummers from across the United States and Canada. To put us all in one category is like ‘Pan Indian-ism’ or ‘All Indians.’ But I am very happy about what happened last night. It makes me feel very proud that we were on something as big as the Grammys.”
Silas added, “Even within this category we are in ‘Powwow Music,’ there are four or five different categories within that. There is Southern Style, Southern Contemporary Style, Northern Style, Northern Contemporary Style. There is hand drum singing, round dance singing, 49 singing … when you look at Native American music, there are tons of different styles. Stomp dancing, flute, religious music … it’s kind of like the first step of getting that out to the public that Native Americans have their own music. We appreciate the fact that they are starting to do that, but it should have been done a long time ago.”
Verlin Johnson, Navajo, said, “It’s good to be a part of something big, I came into the group at the right time. Especially today it is a different world than back in the days … .”
“We are finally starting to get recognized,” Rusty Diamond, Pawnee/Otoe, said. “And now that we are on the board, maybe next year or the year after people will really find out what this music is about.”
Tha Tribe formed in January 1997. Silas recalled its humble beginnings. “A bunch of guys who had sang with other groups were here at school and you know how you come to school and you are lonely and you get homesick and you look for people to talk to. We started talking … pretty soon it was ‘Yeah, I know that song,’ and ‘Let’s get together for a jam.’ That was the birth of where we came from. When we started singing, our eyes got real big and we looked at each other and we said, ‘Hey, this is really tough sound.’
What made their sound so ‘tough’ was that the exchange of language and musical styles was unique. As the group became more and more serious, members grew into what they call a family.
“We’re more than just a group,” Silas said. “We want to keep taking it to the next level and what happened last night (at the Grammys) is like one of the goals we have been trying to reach.”
Shannon Ross, Eastern Cherokee, agrees. “We can translate an Oneida song into the Cherokee language and then sing it.”
“It’s awesome,” Silas interjects. “We’re all singing a Cherokee song or a Menominee song, but we’re all from different places!”
A new album from Tha Tribe is expected to be released within the month. Meanwhile the group is helping another drum group get started at Haskell – Indian Avenue is its name.
“It’s kind of like we are cousins,” Diamond said. “It’s really neat. It’s like a rebirth and I try to help them whenever I can. We all do.”
“Yeah, but we’re the ones going after the Grammy next year!” someone in the room shouts, laughing.
A buzzer sounds. The interview is over; even Grammy winners have to go to class.