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MUSICAL MISSION

TAOS STUDIO KEEPS TRIBAL SONGS ON THE RECORD
by Danita Ross

 

  "Suddenly close behind us the deep throated Indian drum began to beat. A chorus of four old men came to stand at the entrance to the Pueblo. They were not specially costumed, they might have been uncles or grandfathers anywhere except for their braided hair and bright headbands, their faces brown and gullied as earth. But when they began to sing our mortal hearts turned over."  
— Peggy Pond Church    

In the beginning there was Indian music.

That's about as simple a place to start as any when you're talking about Tony Isaacs of Taos—about Indian House Recordings there, which he owns and which maintains one of the major collections of Indian music in the country, all recorded live on site by Isaacs himself. Quixotically the first contact with the music that would inspire Isaacs to his life's work in New Mexico happened not in Taos, but in Los Angeles.

Isaacs was 14 then and a Boy Scout with an assignment to learn an Indian song. "I remember I went into downtown Los Angeles to a large music store. I found some 78 rpms of Indian songs, bought one and went home and began learning the yos and heys. I also got a drum and worked at learning the drumming so I could drum [to] the song. That's when I first realized it's a lot harder than it seems. I had a really difficult time getting the drum and the voice together."

Years later, Isaacs would learn that his struggle was not without good reason. He had chosen to learn a Plains Indian song. Traditionally, in Plains music, the drum beat is slightly ahead of the vocal beat in a complex pattern. But back then, in Los Angeles, it was the exact challenge needed to fire fascination in young Isaacs. He bought more records and learned more songs. In his later teens he was finally able to take a trip with some friends to Indian country, to the Flagstaff Powwow. Then another to Gallup. Then to Oklahoma. It was through these trips that the seeds for his belief in the particular specialness of Indian music performed "live" were sown in him.

At that time—mid to late '50s—there were a lot of Indians from Oklahoma, South Dakota, New Mexico and other areas living in Los Angeles, having relocated for employment. They would gather together in Indian clubs, hold small powwows and meet regularly to sing and drum. Isaacs started attending some of these events and soon made some friends. He eventually was invited to join in the singing.

"This is when I really learned to sing," Isaacs recalls.

He also began to appreciate the intricacies of Indian song composition. The familiar "hai-yas" and "yo-is" and such that often led non-Indians to declare that all Indian music sounds alike are in actuality what Isaacs calls prescribed vocables—not improvised, but composed in the song.

"Vocables are basically vowel sounds having different values," Isaacs explains. "For example, "o" has a different emotional value than "e" when sung. A skillful composer works with vocables to affect a musical piece. Songs can express sadness, happiness, pride in tradition—all kinds of feelings—using only vocables."

In his college years, Isaacs took every chance he had trekking to New Mexico and Oklahoma to attend ceremonials and powwows. He also was recording, but only for his own interest. In the early 60's, with a degree in anthropology from UCLA, Isaacs moved to Oklahoma where he discovered and recorded Plains music that never had been recorded. He studied Kiowa linguistics and gained the trust of Indian singers.

"It's OK to record us, Tony, but don't sell it."

Isaacs was not interested in selling, but he began to dream of an archival library of Indian music. Having little money, he went to academia with his request for funding. They were sympathetic to his idea but told him he must have a doctorate to get any real funding. At the suggestion of Charles Seeger at UCLA, Isaacs enrolled in the doctorate program in ethnomusicology at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where he would study with David McAllester. After one year, it became clear that the academic approach wasn't for him. Besides, there were other forces at work in his life.

For some time, Isaacs had been carrying on a correspondence turned romance with a young woman from Taos Pueblo, Ida Lujan. By 1966, he had put his archival dream on the back burner and moved to Taos with his new wife, Ida. Together, they opened an arts and crafts store they called Indian House. Now exposed to aspects of Pueblo culture, Isaacs also began absorbing some of the nuances of Pueblo music.

"As with any group, Indian music reflects the values and lifestyle of the culture," Isaacs explains. "Pueblo music reflects a long and settled community-minded tradition, so their musical pieces tend to be long and language-based, with vocables interspersed. A song starts low and works its way slowly up and then down again. The music is symphonic in structure, containing repetitive, melodic themes."

"I asked a Taos Pueblo man a question about the second line of a song we were listening to," Isaacs continues, "and he just looked at me puzzled. 'Line?!' he asked me. 'What do you mean?' Indian music is never written down in lines, not even in the composing process. An Indian composer will simply say, 'I made a new song.' "

Taos Pueblo always has been a hotbed of composition, according to Isaacs. This was also true in 1966 when Indian House began to carry commercial, studio-recorded Indian music by Canyon, Soundchief and Folkways records. "We began to notice that some of the songs on these albums had been composed in Taos but were being recorded for sale by other tribes. We thought, 'Wait a minute, something's wrong here. There should be a record of Taos songs sung by Taos singers.' "

Friends encouraged Isaacs to start recording Indian music commercially, and Ida believed strongly that Isaacs' recording work was better than a lot of what was then available. But Isaacs hesitated. His heart still was in an archival library and the words of his friends in Oklahoma resounded: "Don't sell it!" Finally, Isaacs decided that if the singers knew ahead of time the music was for a record, and if they agreed, then it should be OK. A royalty plan was designed and a cousin helped them to find the best singers—but it took several weeks before the singers consented. Preferring a natural outdoor sound, they went up into the mountains to record. Ida designed the album covers, insisting on contemporary presentations to show that "Indians are alive and well and singing." Explanatory notes were included with each album so that non-Indians could gain an understanding of the music.

The initial stipulations on the first trial album in 1966 were to become trademarks of quality for Indian House productions. With Tony recording and Ida designing, Indian House would produce 88 recordings over the next 18 years. They would see a transition from albums to cassettes, keep expanding equipment and continue in their dedication to inspire young Indians toward music and composing. Suddenly, in 1984, Ida became seriously ill. All new productions stopped.

"Ida kept trying to encourage me, to prepare me," Isaacs remembers. "She kept saying 'you can do it on your own Tony, you can do it.' But the music stopped talking to me."

Ida Lujan Isaacs died in January of 1985.

Isaacs tried to continue with the productions.

"I could do the field recordings, but I'd walk into the studio and it would be too lonely without her . . . I just couldn't do it."

Isaacs started an audio duplicating business so the equipment would be in use, but all new Indian House field recordings stayed on the shelf. For the next several years, Isaacs threw himself completely into the duplicating business. It was not until 1991 that he released a new Indian House production.

"It's taken me a long time to heal, I guess," Isaacs acknowledges. "Now, I'm ready. And I've suddenly realized—I've got eleven years before I'm 65! I don't envision myself out on the reservations with a recorder much beyond 65 . . . I've got to get this stuff out!"

Isaacs still holds in his heart the wisdom of Ida's words to him years back when he was working so hard to get all the old singers recorded that he got pneumonia. "Tony," Ida insisted gently. "You are not going to save Indian music. Recordings are not going to save Indian music. Indian music will only stay alive if Indian people keep on believing in it . . . keep using it . . . keep on singing."

Santa Fean Danita Ross writes articles, essays and drama. She also is coordinator of the University of New Mexico lecture series "The Story of New Mexico."

Originally published in New Mexico Magazine, August, 1992. We are grateful to the author for her kind permission to include it here.


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