“When we forget the stories we lose the songs. When the songs die, the dance fades away. When the dancing ends the rain stops. When the rain stops the corn dies. And when the corn dies, we die," Native American musician Robert Mirabal reminds us. The three-time Grammy Award winner is joining forces with the dynamic band ETHEL to bring us music that is about community and listening to each other.
Their performance “The River,” a cross cultural performance that is coming to Reston Community Center on May 26, looks more like a ceremony, celebrating the essential role of water in life on Earth.
“There are chants; there are instrumental pieces. He [Mirabal] plays his flute in a large part of the program … You can imagine, inside of his life as a tribal elder in the Taos Pueblo, much of the music making is actually ritual. It has to do with respecting spirits of the ancestors or waking up the spirit of the Earth or honoring the spirit of water, drawing the rain, raising the crops, keeping the people healthy,” said Dorothy Lawson, founder and cellist of ETHEL, over the phone and described how working with Mirabal changed the way the band makes music. “He brings a large part of that respectful intensity to the performances and we both listen to it and have been invited to amplify it, to use our skills for the same goal, in the same ceremony. It really changed our attitude toward being in a concert and knowing that the audience comes to share an experience. They give you so much trust that you are going to use all of skill and your passion to give them an experience that they will find interesting and maybe even moving.”
It is moving. I listened to their music and I can describe it as relaxing, spiritual, different, energetic, and entertaining--all at once.
Because we don't see many Native Americans assimilate into American culture, I wondered how Mirabal feels about performing and sharing his music:
“I'm not sure if I’m assimilating into America or if we all have just been swallowed up by what we think America is about. Yet to some extent there is a good reason most "traditional" Natives of my community refuse to assimilate, basically for the same reason most citizens of this country choose to disconnect from what is America. As much as we want to be patriotic about where we come from, it’s difficult to identify with where it is that we actually are from; many ethical questions can be addressed with just this question, and all I can say is with a smile, ‘It's not my country anymore,’” responded Mirabal, who comes from the Taos Pueblo in Northern New Mexico.
Mirabal’s music includes a broad range of styles, from traditional to contemporary, with influences from around the world, including “Africa, Spain, South America, [and] Japan,” shared Mirabal. “To be connected with a dynamic group such as ETHEL has helped me to see my own musical expression come to fruition. What I have learned is vast and I’m proud to be part of their family.”
The name ETHEL has a story behind it that tells more about the band’s vision:
“The moment where we found the name was in a movie. It was the movie ‘Shakespeare in Love,’ which came out in the ‘90s. It’s a sweet movie. It is a romantic comedy. At one point, Shakespeare was struggling to complete a very important play; he just is not connecting with the subject and the idea. It’s supposed to be a comedy and he has been given the working title ‘Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter.’ He just does not want to write this play, and when we were first working together, we wanted to find a name. One of the original violinists was laughing about that and saying: ‘People expect us, as a string quartet, they expect us to come and perform as Romeo, the hero and be very serious. Instead, we’re more playful. We want to be Ethel. Ethel, the pirate’s daughter,’” shared Lawson.
“It’s just our distinction to be a little bit irreverent and playful about people’s idea of classical music. Especially when we began 20 years ago, the whole field of classical music had acquired a hyper academic and intellectual character.
We wanted to write in a more popular way, or a populist way and bring the colors of the music of our time, the music that people actually wanted to listen to. We wanted to use that even in the tradition of classical music. So, the pieces that we were championing were written with the same quality of architectural exploration and knowledge of the background of classical music, but with a more colloquial musical language.”
Is “The River” about the environment?
“Yes, to some extent. It is not literally an argument about the dynamics of climate or climate change or anything like that. What comes through in the performance is how deeply dependent the fortunes of humanity are on the health of the climate. When the environment deteriorates, or changes dramatically, humanity is in terrible trouble,” said Lawson. “In a way, Robert can report from the front lines of that because his own culture is disappearing. It’s very sobering and it’s very beautiful to hear him speak about it because his tribe is only 2000 people. Every person who dies or leaves or disappears is a very big part of the number of people and also of the culture that disappears even with just one person. It does tend to bring the audience into a much stronger sense of, really in a way, their own importance and their own obligation to pay attention and to really be aware of who they are in every day and what they are contributing to the health of the ecosystem. It’s an interesting experience.”