Navajos singing in the Emilian dialect: world music as a trail between different people

I ragazzi del Chieftains Choir a Shiprock indossano il tricolore!

One year later we are back in Shiprock, New Mexico, guests of our friend Mark Amo (director of the Performing Arts Center). Shiprock is in the Navajo Nation terrritory, and pretty much all the students of the local high school are Navajo. The school boasts a choir, and last year its director Bonnie Lee invited us to attend one of their rehearsals. That resulted in a strange mutual sympathy, guarded on their part, perhaps a little distracted on ours, as strangers passing through. This year they wrote us: the choir has been studying two of our songs, Angiolina and Mariuleina, which in the album we sing together with the Choir of mondine di Novi. Can they come and sing them with us? Sure, I reply. A choir of 46 Navajo teenagers singing in the Emilian dialect? That does not happen every day to me.

I talk to Bonnie Lee: I really want to do Bella Ciao world version with this choir, as we did wikth many artists from all over the world. Have you got a Navajo song to sing for that number? Bonnie Lee, hesitates, that’s pushing it too far. I won’t have it: we are guests here, the Diné (this is their word for themselves, it was the Spaniards calling them Navajos) langage should be heard in this concert. Some of the boys nod in agreement, and then it’s decided. I’d like a traditional melody, but the only thing they can sing is a hymn, “Amazing Grace”, translated into Diné.

So we do it: alongside Italian and the Emilian dialect, the guttural and ASPIRATI sounds of the Diné language resonate on the stage. The audience – almost all native – is really happy. Roberta calls on the applause: “The Chieftains Choir!” Cheers. I echo her: “The Navajo Nation!”. More cheering. We thank them in Diné: “Akh’ie hé!”. The boys give me bear hugs and slap my back.

The next day, over lunch, we discuss it with Keith, who works with Mark at the Performing Arts Centre (but Mark is white, Keith is native). I understand that music, for native Americans, is not as important a cultural marker as it is for us Europeans: for them it has a mostly ceremonial function, so the idea of performing it in a theater is a foreign one to them, as would be for us that of celebrating a Mass before an audience, for money.

“It seems to me the main identity marker to you is rather the language, Keith. Shame that the kids do not speak it much.”

“Many do speak it in the family, bu they are embarassed to speak it in front of their friends.”

“I understand this, but I think it is wrong. In Italy dialects are almost gone for the same reason. My grandparents would refuse to speak dialect to us, they wanted us to grow up as Italians, with no local identity. Today I regret not speaking it better, not having heard and memorized more old stories. As a grown up I have started to use dialect again as an intimate language: if I talk to you in dialect, it means you are my friend.”

Keith is clearly intrigued. He tells me about native music: apparently some young people are cautiously experimenting incremental innovations on drum technique (“In some ceremonies the young would use not a single drum, but two or even three, of different sizes giving different sounds; also, they hit the drum on the edges, or slide their hands on it to obtain different notes”). I answer that innovation is necessary for the tradition to be alive, but great respect for the music must be there as well. To make sure I am being respectful when I do something new with the music, I talk to mondine, who are like the elders of our tribe. If they like it, I will stand up for my music even against hell’s storm troops, and no one is going to tell me bullshit like “real trad music does not use grooves”.

Keith is warming up to the idea. “We, too, ask the elders for their advice when we do something new. If they approve you, you feel very strong: if your integrity is being questioned they will come out and say, we approved what he did, we told him to it that way. With that backing, you can’t really go wrong.

As he speaks, he slips into Diné: he says a sentence in Diné, then he translates it into English for me, then another one in Diné, then English again. I am so absorbed in what he says that I don’t get the implications of him using his native language so freely with an obviously non-native person and a relative stranger. I do not want to embarass him, so I put it down as a joke as I am going to wash my hands:

When I’m back, Mark is paying the bill, time to move on. Keith shakes my hand and speaks to ne in Diné. He does not translate. This time I understand his offer of friendship right away, and I want to reciprocate. I manage to find a few sentences in dialect. “A gh’è chès c’ag tornàm a vèder, Keith. Stè bèin, Dio a’t bendéssa!”

Few times like today has it been clearer to me why world music means so much to me. It helps to track new trails for people to meet and understand each other, helped – not hindered, whatever Sam Huntington might say – by their cultural differences. Maybe it’s the light of the autumn sun on the desert, or the sound of the Diné language, or the two days spent in a place where native Americans are a majority, but I feel a little like Keith and I are scouts who have just found a trail. And it looks promising.

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5 thoughts on “Navajos singing in the Emilian dialect: world music as a trail between different people

  1. dp

    Bellissimo post. Mi sento molto coinvolta da tutto il discorso. Sono piemontese, ma i miei mi hanno sempre parlato in italiano e non so parlare il dialetto, quando lo faccio, nei mercati, con i contadini che poco badano alle inflessioni, mi sento davvero realizzata. E nemmeno capisco come faccia mio fratello a parlare così bene in piemontese….

  2. Alberto Post author

    E’ certamente una ricchezza. Le radici, la diversità, sono un grande aiuto per non essere tutti uguali, semplicemente dei consumatori globali. Che poi l’essere uguali è una grande illusione: almeno nella musica, inglesi e americani sono “l’originale” e hanno un vantaggio decisivo su tutti gli altri che, se scendono sul terreno del rock o del pop da classifica, sono automaticamente copie, serie B. Chiedete a Vasco o al Liga che non vendono un disco fuori dall’Italia, Canton Ticino escluso. Essere italiani dell’Emilia dà ai Fiamma Fumana non solo un punto di osservazione da cui guardare il mondo, ma anche un’opportunità di mercato: una chance per essere diversi, per essere i migliori in un ambito ristretto. Non è mica poco.

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