An Interview with Robert Mirabal
by Peggy Randall
PR: How did you get into music?
RM: I grew up with music. In my culture music is something that, when you grow up in a very traditional society you are raised by people that are involved in that society for generations and generations and so when a child is born you teach it the language and teach it the songs and you teach it rhythm and you teach it stomp, ...you know, to the Earth. So I was raised in a community of dancers and singers, painters, drum makers, all these different people. In a modern sense, it would considered an artistic community, but those are the way that traditional societies run around the world.
PR: You teach the children the song and dance and that is how they memorize the language. And the interdependency that people have toward one another. You've lived in an integrated society, instead of a disintegrated one?
RM: Yes. Exactly. It's still the same. Things have changed just a little bit. Mainly, just the media blitz on people. Television, computers, radio, telephones, running water, electricity. That kind of stuff has just come in in the last ten years. It was around before, but the elders wouldn't allow it for a long time in special places because those places have sacred meaning and you just don't destroy them out of the blue to accommodate your needs. So I grew up with a lot of taboos and a lot of education towards the Arts for the lack of a better word in English.
RM: I was initiated around ten years old into a society, so to the day I die, you know, I'm an initiated man so I belong to the society that based on strong cultural implications to what is real and what is true as men. And I would do a ceremony, then come back home and turn the radio on and listen to whatever was on the radio, Led Zeppelin, Guns and Roses, to Top 40.
PR: Specific primary influences?
RM: In a Western sense, my mom was a Country music fan and she turned me onto Don Williams and just the way he approached music in such a simple way that it hit me and I really got involved with Mellencamp, they both stories about the common man. I mean I couldn't relate to Casey and the Sunshine Band and that disco stuff, I mean it didn't make sense. I couldn't relate to the Beechies because it was something that I couldn't see. But when I heard this new style of rock and roll and music based on a story line and people like Mellencamp and Bruce Springsteen. I liked the way they write.
PR: Like that narrative format?
RM: Right. That's the style I like to study. At home, everyone and their cousin is a singer and there's a lot of people at home that I really like to listen to their voices. There is no such thing as a perfect voice, everyone is unique unto themselves. We are supposed to sing. That's why we are men. We are supposed to sing. We're supposed to learn the songs. That's our responsibility. In the Western format, they don't know that. In the Western world you just sing to sing. In my culture, you are a man and you are supposed to sing. That's just law. That is the nature of law and the mother earth's law, you are meant to sing. And that's how I see it. And there are a lot of men, elderly to young men that I really admire. They are pushing the forces of their voices and whether it is traditional or modern, it just doesn't make any difference to me. I like to hear the voices of people.
PR: Any famous Native artists influences?
RM: I don't know. My admiration for people comes with their struggles. And how well they've accommodated to living in two worlds. For me as I become older all I can ever offer to my people is to stay here and to do the best I can to teach my culture from the way my grandpas taught me. And it's hard for me to say that I have other influences because I've always been taught that I have to see how the person lives. I don't choose my mentors from a Native point of view in the Western world. But I choose my mentors from a Native point of view when it comes to Native people. I like Carlos, R. Carlos. I played with him a few times. You know he's cornered the market with a lot of this stuff. He knows how to be a business man and singers I know, they don't know how to be businessmen, they know how to be singers. I tend to leave what is true for me. I know we have to survive in the best way we can. There's some people who are Native who are masters at selling themselves and I'm not one of them and the people I choose to follow in singing techniques and voice techniques. Like Bill, Bill and I have done a lot of stuff and I know how Bill grew up. And I really appreciate what he's done, but I also know that there's certain things he does in his lifestyle that I would never do. I appreciate him on a Western level. But on a Native level, the distinctions, they're different. I've seen too much of my culture. There's a conversational language that we need to learn and there's a religious language that we need to learn, so my culture isn't written in a book, like other cultures are. The way that I was taught by the elders is, I think, much more harsh than most places.
PR: How long have you been playing music?
RM: I've been playing for about 13 years and I play Native American flute, but I don't play it in a typical fashion. I play it more in a jazz oriented style. I've mostly been influenced by jazz mostly because it's so obscure. My native language and culture has always been considered obscure, so it's obvious that I would choose a genre that would be considered very obscure.
I studied Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk and some of those old jazz masters. And I liked their approach. So I began to play in their style. I would create the hook of my flute playing. That's what I would memorize. Then from around the hook I would do a lot of improvisation....
PR: "Mirabal" is a radical departure...
RM: Yeah, I've always written stuff. I have a book out, stories from when I grew up in the Pueblo---Skeleton of a Bridge. I want to release a little adult/children's story book and I want to illustrate it....I started playing with a band in NY that would incorporate the French style of singing with voodoo rhythms...Kraze Kunoe Tribesmen...Kunoe means cannon, and there was an Australian dijeridoo player, so that's why they called it Kunoe, they thought it was a cannon. The band was made up of a Jamaican keyboardist, myself on tribal rhythm and a woman from Barbados. It became a pretty huge group. We'd play all over NY. It was really cool. It was all these tribal rhythms. It was kind of like dance music. We were really ahead of our times. So that's where I picked up how to use my language in the four-four pattern - how to accommodate how I feel in dance rhythms and basic Western rhythmic tracks.
I played a lot of flute and percussion instruments in that group and then just traveling all over the place I learned Senagalese drumming styles and singing, Japanese Taiko drumming styles and different techniques.
PR: How did you learn to play these different instruments... How did you get to Mirabal?
RM: When we did Land? Right. It was an afternoon and we finished and my producer Mike Wanchic goes, he's fantastic, working with Kenny Arnoff the drummer, it's like a dream come true, and I told my cousin Rinaldo, "Watch, just watch, something's going to happen." He always listen when I say that. So anyway, he [Wanchic] goes, "What else do you have Robert?" We still got some tape left and it's in the afternoon, so I said, "I got some songs here." So we did "Tony and Allison." The whole thing was in my keyboard and we laid down the track.
That particular song, it's one take. That's it.
PR: On the album?!?! That was the first take? You're kidding?
RM: It's weird. I lost the whole sequence after that. I did it and then a half an hour later, I don't know what I did with it. It was gone. That's OK. It so happens that they sent it to the Warner National president. And he said, "Man, I like this. You should do more music like this." So before Land was released, we were already writing. And me and Mark Andes, who used to play with Hart. I consider him a master at creating pop arrangements. He say "Hey I got this arrpegiated thing on my guitar, you wanna hear it?" And as soon as I heard it, words started coming into my mind. I never expected to write stuff like that. I always just wanted to write a book and I started taking voice lessons. I been singing all my life but I've been singing what our people called head voices.
PR: Like a higher register? You mean they sing higher up in their throat?
RM: Yeah. Western voice is based more on a lower register...
PR: You dabbled in a lot of genres.
RM: Bruce Springsteen was told by his manager, "You need to write a story that people can follow." And that's what I try to do with my lyrics. I'm really conscious about that when I write stories. I want people to come into my life. I want them to see what I wouldn't normally tell them but I can tell them through music. I want them to feel and see a story. And so I studied a lot of different people. And I use my language as well as English, and some French, some Spanish, whatever. When I hear a good musician I can work with I can feel it in my body really quickly.
I have enough material for another album. Mike and I are going to do some music together. Mike is an awesome guitar player. His guitar playing is what made Mellencamp. That's my opinion......We're going to start this month.
PR: What other labels have you been associated with?
RM: I'm now with Warner Bros. and SilverWave. Right before I signed with Warner Bros. I licensed my work to MTI. I created my own label when I was 19. I didn't know what I was getting into....So I said you can take these three albums and make two out of them. Then I signed with Warner to make a brand new album. And MTI licensed their catalog to SilverWave. Then I got involved with Silver Wave's artists. So from that point on I just started to collaborate with a bunch of different people. I write songs with a lot of people. I like to figure out where I can put my brain with my breath into a form of composition and they want me to play into it. I like those kind of stuff.
PR: Native music in the past?
RM: The stuff that has been commercially recorded in the past, yes. I really like Buffy St. Marie. I used to listen to her when I was a kid. And I listened to Xit and I think we are lucky to have Buffy St. Marie. She's a legend. She is like the mama of contemporary Native American music and I really honor her for really committing to what she believes in. And with X-it and Redbone, those people. I think it was better then. Because people were coming out in the sixties and the seventies and they were coming out really trying to feel and see what was truly there in America. And even Michael Martin Murphy who came out with Geronimo's Cadillac and Wild Fire in the early seventies and he tried to tell the people what is really Native America.
PR: He was Native American?
RM: People wanted to be. People wanted to be and feel what was Native American. Many different artists; from people like Buffy St. Marie to Peter, Paul and Mary, to Jimi Hendrix was part Cherokee and he was pushing the limitations of himself to see and offer answers to the world was amazing.
PR: So in your perspective, you consider Jimi Hendrix a Native artist?
RM: Yeah. There's a lot of people out there that we mistake for whatever reason. I thought it was better. That's not my generation, but I listened to it alot, that kind of music doesn't die. When the media and society oppress a certain group of people, it's going to become stronger. It made me want to listen to Buffy St. Marie more. It made me want to Hendrix more, and to Redbone more. It made me want to listen to something that had something to do with my culture. And then Kevin Cosner came along with his Dances with Wolves movie and it shot us back into the past.
PR: Oh wow!
RM: I mean, look at what the media does to us.
PR: So that's when all this traditional music came out and that's what people thought about Native American music?
RM: Yeah. Nobody can say anything to me about traditional music. I know what it is. It's just that I live in two worlds. And one of the worlds I would like to have understand and like most Indians would like to have understanding with is to belong to this world and to feel like we belong to this world. And now contemporary music people don't what to do with it, they put it in New Age, they put it in NA, they put it in International. Never in their section. They never put it in Pop music. They never put it in Rock and Roll.
PR: Is it going mainstream again though? Do you see people like yourself transcending the narrow category of NA?
RM: I see it happening. But I don't know what it means. It's a weird contradiction. I see that I'm going into mainstream but I don't know what that means. I don't think America knows what it means.
PR: Thank God.
RM: I just feel sad, cause you know, I'm not political. I'm not involved in the American Indian Movement. I don't complain about freeing Leonard Peltier. I have enough problems dealing with my government here at the Taos Pueblo. But one thing I get sad about is how come we don't have a section in the Grammys? It's like we are still pushed into the ancient times. I speak my language. I sing the ancient songs so that means they're not ancient, they are not of the past. I sing them today and they are contemporary. They are songs of today meant for the earth for today's breathing of the earth. For today's movement of the earth. I believe everybody keeps putting Native people into the past. We refuse to tell them what we are doing and what we are about.
PR: Do you think the solution is to keep Native artists like yourself in a discreet category called Native American?
RM: I think the solution is this Internet thing is going to get huge. It's going to get bigger than anything we can ever possibly imagine and it's going to be the destroyer of a lot of people. But there is a way to use it so that people around the world can receive our stories and receive our music. It's like I'm signed to Warner Bros. cause it's like a major label that is owned by the United States of America that took a chance on me. Bill Miller isn't on Warner anymore. They let him go. So I'm the only one on a major label so like I need to figure out what I can offer for the students and women that are coming behind me or with me or in front of me or wherever it may be. I need to be real careful what I want to offer. What I want to offer is a lyrical intelligence and a musical intelligence that stretches far beyond the reaches of storyline Native music or any category. And that what we did with Mirabal, it stands on its own and it's going to be a classic.
PR: It is a classic....
RM: Thanks for your support, but we're not selling anything. You know the only way to have power is by selling. Is by being part of this capitalistic way of thinking. And that way of thinking is to sell. How do you sell the product. It's a sophisticated artistic effort and I don't know if the masses are going to get it. The masses are involved in three or four different producers....
PR: What about Walela?
RM: What do I think about Walela and Robbie Robertson? I think they have power. I think they have the power to put to mainstream Native music, but they need to educate themselves to what they are doing. This new album that Robbie Robertson is doing is, I think, is going to be well received because it has Native stories in it along with Hip Hop and Dance rhythms and that's what European people want. It only sold 5,000 units here and got sponsored by Hagen Das in Europe! I can't even get sold in Europe. Wanna talk about industry politics? AAAK! They have power because Rita Coolidge has been up there. When she goes into a room people listen. And Robbie Robertson I listened to when I was a kid, and my cousin Ben said, "Listen to this last waltz," as he was smoking a joint, "this guy's really a guitar player." So from Robbie Robertson everybody wanted to be a guitar player, cause he was Indian. Native Americans have the dream of becoming rock stars. And whether they like it or not they are responsible for intellectual lyrics and they are responsible for intellectual songwriting.
PR: Like Trudell?
RM: I like his stuff. I like his older stuff like AKA Graffitti Man with Midnight Oil. He's considered really dangerous, and that's fine, we need a little bit of danger. I like that he's out there. But he doesn't speak for me. But I respect him. I buy his music. I support Native music. And I listen to it. I want to write music with Robbie Robertson. I'd love to have Laura Satterfield write some music with me. And that will happen in time. We as Native artists need to put out stronger things that we feel.
PR: What purpose do Native musicians serve?
RM: We are story tellers. We are like people from Ireland. We are like people who are Jewish. We are like people of all different races. We have stories to tell. Countless times we have settled into the back corners of our own existence. And now when we have the opportunity to push ourselves, people begin to see us as threatening people. They still want to put us into the ground. They make us fight among tribes. They make us fight among our own kind. What we have to offer to the world is "Listen to our stories. These are the things that have happened." And I really appreciate people who are independently producing their albums, going out there and learning to play music but they need to go out there and incorporate their language. Cause its our language and you need to twist English around so that it's not so like a fluffy bed. You got to put some twists and turns on this language. Bed Be ean na. That's what I would put in. So it encompasses a twist in lyrical form. So what I do is study my language so I can create formulas in my music. I just breathe and study language. I like Walela but... I like one song that they sang and they have beautiful stories and I think we need to tell these stories. And the song, Amazing Grace. I've heard Amazing Grace singed in 50 different languages. We have our own Amazing Graces. I get fascinated by where we're going.
PR: Where do you think you're going?
RM: I think we are going to a better place. And the way we can get there is by combining our efforts by doing more NA festivals, by the Native American Music Awards, they already have a Native American Indians in the Arts we should create them so we can honor those that we feel are pushing the limitations out of their world and we should have more Native magazines and newspapers. I think we need to accommodate the media by our stories and with those stories.
PR: What do think this would do for society at large?
RM: Well society at large will do whatever it wants. Microsoft is going to buy God, ...little Billy Gates is going to change the whole world man. I think we should take it one step at a time. Let's take care of our land first. Let's take care of our language first. Let's take care of our children first. Let's take care of our elders first. If there is a beer can on the road, pick it up. I don't know. I try to do the best I can for my community and that's all that I can do. All I can say is I'm here for my culture. I believe in it. and the best thing I could ever say and promise is I'm here for my little baby girl. We are facing dangerous times, but you know if we keep on writing what's honest with intentional intelligence then we are doing well.
PR: Do you think white people have the right to play Native American music?"
RM: I don't know. Any kind of music that is considered Native American helps. Helps me as an artist and helps other people down the road. It's just when they are doing it I hope they are doing it out of respect. That they don't change their names so that people buy their albums just because their name is Bear Follows the Aspen Tree. Don't change your name. Don't change your name to accommodate a capitalistic mindset. That only comes back on you. I appreciate them cause if a guy from Hoboken NJ buys it and it sounds Native American, it helps. That's breaking down the little things that we're all trying to as Native artists trying to break down. So I honor them in that way. But do things out of honesty and respect. You are taking from a culture that has been ripped off so many times, so with that in mind, I advise them, "Do things out of respect." Don't do it cause it's the in thing or you read it in a magazine or you saw it in a vision or whatever. Everybody has visions. I honor them for their musical endeavors, but you know I'm doing a music project that has to do with the first African mariners that came to America, so I'm getting stuff from Egypt, history from Egypt that has been translated. I'm studying from a point of respect, you know, where can I find myself in this. Not that he's Black, and I'm Indian. We know what it's about. We want to go beyond that. They were African mariners who came across the oceans. What does it mean to me? I'm seeing this from a Taos Pueblo man's point of view. I'm not changing my name to some Swahili name to be accepted.
PR: Any comments?
RM: I buy NA music as much as I can and I think we should support one another. Even if you say, " I don't like this he shouldn't have done that," but if you buy NA that's good. Read so you can have an opinion. Listen so you can have an opinion. And dance so you can have an opinion. That's what the earth wants us to be. I buy different kinds of music so I can say, "this guy's full of shit. Or I can say, you know, I'm going to listen to it again." I listen to stuff until I get a different perspective. I listen to stuff, and if I like it. I listen again. Then I listen til I have a different perspective. I learn from every musician in this country, white, black American Indian, Hispanic, ... it doesn't make any difference. We have something to offer one another and that's honesty. We have just as much struggle to get played on the radio as 2000 artists who were signed to Warner Bros.
Everybody has his problems, it's not just NAs. You can buy Baby Face to produce your album to make a hit. But we need to do what's honest. I'm saying that to everybody. I'm saying that from a musicians point of view. They just want the pretty boys, the angry young man is what's in now. We have trouble getting played on the air. I just been lucky. I'm living my dreams so I don't have too much to complain about, but I wake up some days and complain about everything. That's what I wanted when I was a kid. I wanted to be a rock and roll singer/songwriter. I wanted to be on stage and play the music. Now it's happening. The god's have accepted my dreams. I need to honor the Gods by being honest. I must put my family first and my culture and then the earth.
for more information on Robert Mirabal, visit his website at: http://www.mirabal.com/