Music

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The music of the Navaho is both secular and sacred. It is vocal music, which may or may not be accompanied by drums, rattles, and whistles, according to its context. If a drum is called fro, it will be one of two types. The first, a pot drum, is made by covering a small earthen pot with a buckskin. This drum, which contains water, is struck with a looped drumstick. The second kind is a basket drum. This is made by inverting a ceremonial basket and tapping it with a moccasin, straight stick, belt, or the regular drumstick of plaited yucca. The basket drum can be used with a resonator; in the nine-day Red Ant Way Ceremonial, for example, the basket is inverted over a hole scooped out of the hogan floor. Rattles of hide, hoof, or gourd are used in many chants. The hide, which may be buffalo, badger, or rawhide, is shaped and sewed when moist and the handle is platted (plaited) of the same material as the rattle. Small pebbles of white shell, turquoise, abalone, cannel coal and red-white stone are inserted to produce a rattling sound. The gourd rattle is made of a hollow gourd with a stick attached for a handle. It is decorated with figures of the sun, moon, or some constellation.


Flutes are presently nonexistent, although formerly corn was supposedly ground at the war dance in time to "a flute made of the stalk of the sun flower and provided with four keys." According to the Franciscan Fathers, whistles are used in both the Bead Chant and Hochooji', or Evil Way.

The one used in the Bead Chant is made of the leg bone of a jack rabbit killed by an eagle. this is spliced, and removing the marrow, a piece of the inner ear of the jack rabbit is laid between the two pieces of bone and wound with sinew.

Whistles are also used in Peyote ritual, the Shooting Way, Red Ant Way, and other ceremonies. The music of the Blessing Way Ceremony, and hence that of the Kinaalda', is unaccompanied. The songs are sung in a style characterized by nasality, vibrato, a tense, rigorous manner, medium to high pitch level which rises steadily during the night, occasional indefiniteness of certain not pitches, a few ornaments, sharp emphases, and much individual variation. The element of falsetto which characterizes Yeibichai songs and some Squaw Dance Songs is rarely in evidence in the songs of the puberty ceremony. While women may and often do sing, ceremonial practitioners are almost invariably men. Wearing ceremonial headbands (in the case of leaders), they typically sing in a seated position, with eyes closed and fists clenched. Frank Mitchell said the eyes are shut so the songs can be remembered more accurately. Singing is usually a group activity; it contrasts with the unified singing of the neighboring Pueblos in its "wild freedom." Pg. 89- 91

Kinaalda', A Study of the Navaho Girl's Puberty Ceremony; 1993, Charlotte Johnson Frisbie.

As an accompaniment to song many chants require a rattle (aghal). Thus, the mountain and witch chants employ a buffalo hide rattle (ayani aghal); the hozhone (beauty chant) requires the badger hide rattle (nahashcid aghal); the knife chant (beshe) a hoof rattle (akheshga aghal), which is made of hoofs of the deer, antelope, bighorn, etc., while the big star chant (sotsoji) employs both the rawhide and gourd rattles. The night chant, with the various branches of the wind chants, and the water (tqoae), Big God and feather (atsosiji) chants, all employ the gourd rattle (ade aghal). Other chants, with exception of the blessing (hozhoji), bead and feather shaft (khasi) chants, use the rawhide rattle (akhal aghal). The hide for the rattle is shaped and sewed when moist, and the handle is platted of the same material as the rattle. Small pebbles of white shell, turquoise, abalone, cannel coal and red-white stone are inserted to produce a rattling sound. The gourd rattle is made of a hollow gourd with a stick attached for a handle. It is decorated with figures of the sun, moon, or some constellation. At the close of some ceremonies, or when the close terminates in public exhibitions from the fifth night until the finish, the rattle is accompanied by the drum. The drum is the basket turned down which is beaten with a drumstick made of plaited yucca. Tradition also mentions the use of a notched stick which was drawn over the basket instead of the present drumstick. The drum is not part of the medicine bag (jish) but is furnished by the patient. The bead, witch and star chants, as well as all one night ceremonies, dispense with the use of the drum. tsa yasetqa (the basket is turned down), the drum; tsa degnilde, or deg setqa, the basket is thrown up, implying that the ceremony has been abruptly closed. The singer at times resorts to this measure to enforce discipline. Pgs. 401, 402

The cooking pot is largely in use, both for domestic and ceremonial purposes. In the well-known war dance the pot is quickly converted into a drum by stretching a piece of goat, sheep or buckskin across the mouth of the pot and securing it just below the flaring rim. This is tapped with a small round stick producing a dull sound which is kept up incessantly during the entire dance. Pg. 289

An Ethnologic Dictionary of the Navaho Language; 1910, The Franciscan Fathers.

In a typical Holyway chant, . . . A short singing of an hour of more follows, often accompanied by drumming on an inverted basket. Pg. 8

Beautyway: A Navaho Ceremonial; 1957, Leland C. Wyman.

Primitive music is an integral part of Navajo rites. Always there is rattle or tom-tom, probably of African origin With such crude instruments as a pot with a skin stretched over it for a drum and a willow branch for a drumstick, it is remarkable how many rhythmical variations the Navajos can produce. To the beat of the drum and the rattle of the gourd, medicine men chant legends in rhyme at great length, with many repetitions and minor changes. The tones strike the stranger as monotonous or wild, yet they are not as simple as they appear. Although the refrains, which are the most characteristic part of the songs, sound alike, they are never the same in any two. Even a change in accent or emphasis may change the entire meaning of a verse. However, they always follow an established order; any deviation would be sacrilegious. Some words, as in some of our old prayers, are archaic and no longer mean anything even to the Navajos.

The length of chant or dance varies from a few hours to as much as nine days and nine nights, depending upon the significance of the occasion. When the medicine man has to eat and rest, the chanting is kept going by assistant medicine men in the less important parts. Chants deal with every phase of human life. There are chants of traveling, of farming, of building hogans, of hunting, of war, of gambling, of birth, and of death. The song of building the hogan, for instance, may proceed from the moment of thinking about it, building it, moving into it, or lighting the first fire in it. There are chants for dispelling evil spirits, for nullifying the evil effects of lightning, for trapping eagles. No illness can be cured without a specific chant. When someone dies, there are four days of chanting and mourning so that the spirit can make four circles before it departs for the lower worlds.

All Navajo chants are sacred. They must be sung exactly as directed by tradition, since any error or inefficiency might even be fatal. Should error occur, such as an omission, wrong pronunciation or misplacement of a single syllable or word, clemency will be canceled and the hundreds of persons who have come to the ceremonial will be dispersed without the hoped-for blessing. The Navajo mind is rich in poetry and imagery. Unlike our exact and scientific thinking, his is relatively inexact, figurative, and intuitive. His imagination finds expression in sandpaintings full of color, symbolism, and theme. His mythology, whether chanted in verse or in prose, is replete with mysterious tales dealing with gods who always understand him. Those who measure the Navajo only by the standards of a mechanized and exact world cannot believe that he could attain such poetic expression of thought and feeling as he has put, for example, into the following two verses from the Mountain Chant:

The voice that beautifies the land!

The voice above,

The voice of the thunder,

Among the dark clouds

Again and again it sounds,

The voice that beautifies the land!

 

The voice that beautifies the land!

The voice below,

The voice of the grasshopper,

Among the flowers and grasses

Again and again it sounds,

The voice that beautifies the land!

Navajos, Gods, Tom-toms; By S.H. Babington, 1950.

When the pot drum was prepared for the War Ceremony, the jewels stood for the 'floor of the drums's home,' into which the sounds were pounded.

These are some ways in which sounds bring blessings. Sometimes, however, they ward off evil. Each deity, helper, and object has some power expressed by sound. Because of its purpose, primarily to counteract harm done by the monsters but also to control all kinds of enemy ghosts, the War Ceremony has more sound symbolism than any of the other ceremonies for which there are texts.

The underlying explanation is that the harmful sounds of the slain monsters were beaten into the earth and the War Ceremony compensates the earth for the evils left over from prehistoric times. To make it successful, the enemy is sung and beaten into the earth. Beating the pot drum is beating the face of the enemy. With each beat of the stick on the pot drum the minds of enemy ghosts are drawn down toward the earth. Pg. 259

Matthews, in an early work, "Navajo Gambling Songs," refers to the large number of songs concerned with the moccasin game. One old man said there were four thousand, and another that there was no creature that walked, flew or crawled in all the world known to the Navaho that had not at least one song in the game and that many had more. The reason is almost certainly that the game originated as a contest for day and night in which all living things participated. The samples recorded are simpler than the chant songs; the words, at least, impressionistically characterize an animal or person. Owl, for instance, repeats: "I do not want the night to end."

Chickenhawk sings of his rival:

The old owl hates me.

I alone bring home many rabbits.

That is why he hates me.

Gopher cheated by chewing a hole in the moccasin, thus enabling the guesser to see the stone hidden in it.

Gopher sees where the stone is.

Gopher sees where the stone is.

Keep striking! Keep striking [the moccasin in which the stone is hidden]!

The account suggests that a charming descriptive narrative drama could be reconstructed on the basis of these songs alone. Their music must differ as much as their literary quality from the long, repetitious chant and rite songs.

The primary function of song is to preserve order, to co-ordinate the ceremonial symbols; a secondary purpose must be enjoyment. if we may judge by the effort exerted by the lay Navaho to attend and participate in the ceremony, for it is unlikely that he knows the deepest significance of the songs.

The example of the song coming from the cover of darkness just cited shows how tangible the Navaho feel the songs are. The song not only came from the cover, it was the cover. Time and again song and a blanket or curtain are identified. A song moving out into the space immediately surrounding an individual - for example, a horseman riding at night or anyone alone and fearful - establishes a zone of protection that gives comfort, for within it is the person who dissipates the evils by the compulsion of sound and words at the same time that he buoys up his own spirit.

Horned Toad Youth sang for Monster Slayer when he attacked the Gray Gods: "The song was set as a cover upon every deed that The Twins performed against the monsters." In the foregoing examples the verb refers to a blanketlike protection; here the verb means something more, like a lid or bottle stopper.

Songs were said to be kept in a paunch and were referred to as casually as cookies in a jar. In line with the song of the living creatures is that of the kernel of dried corn that begged for attention and water.

Song may be a demonstration of inner strength.

Overcome by the Arrow People, the younger Twin said to his brother, "I wonder how strong I am inside; I'll try to speak out," and forthwith he started a song and was able to finish it.

Like blowing, song may cause increase in size. In one version of the emergency myth, when the World Pillars began to sing, the small model of the earth stretched to its present size.

Song has numerous powers, each defined by something in addition to the song itself, and it seems as if the expression of pure joy is subordinated to other functions. Narration, description, and repetition are often compulsive in songs of sequence. Unless a warrior has been killed, rejoicing in the form of gloating and reviling was incorporated in a serenade after the return of a war party. Though enjoyed because of victory, the serenade, like other parts of the War Ceremony, was exorcistic; saying a thing was true made it true.

The importance of song is summarized by the excerpt: "Changing Woman taught songs to her two divine children, admonishing them, 'Do not forget the songs I have taught you. The day you forget them will be the last; there will be no other days."

Songs are a form of wealth. Individuals own songs for increase and prosperity, songs belonging to the fetishes of domestic animals and the bundles of the simple domestic rites devoted to family or group welfare.

Hill emphasizes the difference between songs owned and sung by chanters and those 'belonging to the whole group.' "A man should not keep these [the latter] secret because they refer to food and are essential to the life of the people. They should be taught to anyone who asks for them and a man should not have to pay for them."

The commended attitude was displayed when negotiations were made for the dedication of the Gallup stadium. "Will there by any objection to singing the songs of the House Blessing?" the chanter was asked. "No, because they belong to everybody," was the answer.

Poverty is framed in song terms: "I have always been a poor man. I do not own a single song.

Songs, like other forms of wealth, may be exchanged. At an impasse an evil power - Star, Thunder, Snake - says, "My offering, my song, my prayer, I will give in exchange for my life." No one should sing a song unless he can prove ownership, his right to sing it. Some songs are individualistic. RP composed a song for each of his grandchildren shortly after its birth and, as soon as the child was old enough, taught it the new song. We ought to know if and how such personal songs differ from the ritualistic ones and whether they were a general custom or merely the whim of a doting grandfather. Unfortunately, I did not follow up the matter.

One day, when the lesson at the Hogan School was about birds, RP came in as was his wont. As the name of each bird was written on the blackboard, he quietly sand the bird's song. It was not the imitation of a bird call; indeed, it has little, if any, of such character. As far as I know, such songs have not previously been reported. They may belong to ritual, but I heard them as a spontaneous expression. Perhaps they belong to the moccasin game, played to decide the length of day and night.

Statements about women's singing conflict. Their shyness and aversion to singing in public do not mean that women cannot or do not like to sing at all. They have lovely lullabies and teach other songs to little boys and girls. MA taught such songs to her grandchildren, yet I never heard her sing.

To the Navaho, song is a necessity; it is an inspiration, a hope, a protection and comfort, a guide to one in want of a procedure, a means of transforming frustration into power.

The songs content parallels closely that of the prayer. For instance, in prayer Monster Slayer is invoked through the bow symbol marked on the rattlestick; explanations of the various applications to the rattlestick are cited. The songs mention what Monster Slayer is doing, what he has done, what will happen; both prayer and song catalogue the good that will come to the patient.

Songs of exorcistic rites express strong emotion - vengeance, triumph in victory, retribution - elements I have not found in Holy ceremonies. Neither song nor prayer includes pity, patronage, humility, or gratitude for blessings conferred. Since the Navaho can never be better than he thinks he is, or his lot than he says it is, he alludes to fear, but does not mention it directly. The Blackening songs contrast the apprehension felt in enemy territory with the security of home; characteristically, both ideas are applied to persons:

 

Into the ground with [their spirits]

Everywhere in his own country I wish the enemy may die.

but:

In all parts of the Navaho country rejoicing, flute-playing, and peace have returned.

and:

....Down into the ground with the enemy, down into the ground with him [that is, with his spirit, by means of beating the pot drum].

The songs continue with a vivid description of the slaughter, of the enemy's shortcomings and inability to protect his womenfolk from disgrace - really a curse put to song.

Songs referring to deeds in the Navaho country are 'attractive' in their content; they identify the patient with success and safety, with long life, with the favorable ritualistic symbols of the blackening as they apply to the Navaho, and they also mention the exorcistic symbols as they apply to the enemy. Whereas the first set of songs curses as it drives out fears, the second mentions the same details with assurance they they are controlled, thus demonstrating the Navaho faith. The evils have been scattered, repelled by the ritualistic machinery. The pattern of reviling and the change to satisfaction is similar in the Male Shooting Chant Evil and the Big Star Chant, both of which belong to the Evil side.

A song group of the Big Star Chant, containing eight songs for the ascent and eight for the descent of the cliff, describes the anger of Spider and Swallow People at Coyote.

Corresponding with the subjects and treatment included in prayer, songs of sequence are mainly descriptive and narrative. The song burdens concerned with the making of the War Ceremony rattlestick illustrate a common narrative feature that is fundamentally linguistic, for it depends upon the tense-aspect system of the verb. In Navaho, verbs of action and motion are differentiated in a rather simple tense system-present, past, and future - and a complicated aspect system - progressive, momentary, customary, inceptive, and cessative.

Often, therefore, the burden of the song has a tense or aspective change to indicate progression from a wish to an accomplishment, a linguistic device related to the symbolism of motion. Hence, there are songs and prayers, as well as sandpaintings, whose theme is motion. Similarly, too, there is emphasis on place and its description. Several groups of songs having different purposes illustrate these emphases. Generally a song or a song set demonstrates more than one of these points.

Navajo Religion, Vol I; Gladys A. Reichard, 1950

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