You’ve Never Heard Anything Quite Like Joe Rainey’s Avant-Garde Pow Wow Music

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Niineta—the title means “Just Me” in Ojibwe—is the result of the two musicians’ extended collaboration. It is a bold, intense listen, by turns brooding and aggressive. Broder’s beats shift between stormy ambient textures and concussive rhythmic passages, playing off pow wow samples from Rainey’s extensive archive. Rainey’s voice—singing in vocables, the wordless syllabic style underpinning classic pow wow music—is alternately searching and urgent, hypnotic and harrowing. “I wanted it to be loud,” Rainey says. “I wanted it to slap people in the face.”

Talking about what he hopes listeners get from the album, Vernon says, “I want people to hear Joe’s voice as a modern singer, but also as a student and teacher of Native song. I want people to understand that there are those in his community that may find this record sacreligious, but for Joe I know it is anything but. It is his deep care for the sacred that shines through in his song.”

The album is part of a rising wave of Native contributions to experimental music. Later this summer, Medicine Singers—a collaboration between the Eastern Algonquin group Eastern Medicine Singers with guitarist Yonatan Gat, Marijuana Deathsquads’ Ryan Olson, ambient pioneer Laraaji, no-wave legend ikue mori, and jazz trumpeter Jaimie Branch, among others—will release a similarly avant-garde twist on Native musical traditions.

Rainey hopes there will be more. For too long, he says, Native people have been all but invisible in popular culture. “I don’t have survivor’s guilt, but not seeing people like me” in the non-Native sphere has been hard, he admits. “But as far as being looked over, that’s done. My goal is to create a space where our music can live forever. I’ve been telling Natives that for the last three years: Let’s link up like some monkeys in a barrel. Hook your arms, then we all get out of there.”

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Pitchfork: What made you start recording pow wows in the ’90s?

Joe Rainey: It was just an infatuation with the tape recorder and how it worked. Everyone has their own collection, and they traded tapes. It was this analog culture, its own world. I tap into that with the samples on this record. Some of those are from when I was really young, and some were from just last year.

How did you learn pow wow singing and drumming?

You listen to it a lot, and you want to learn how to sound like them. One of my first teachers was Darryl Kingbird; the Kingbird Family is a prominent singing family back home in Red Lake. Darryl was responsible for sitting me down and making me a part of a group. Then I could hold my own. Keeping beat was a big thing, too. Singing and drumming at the same time is one of the first things you learn. For the first handful of practices, you probably won’t make a noise, just because you’re so new to everything, and you’re self-conscious. But once you get into it and let a sound come out, that’s the only way you’re going to get better.

How did your collaboration with Andrew Broder work on Niineta?

I wanted it to be my voice in his beat. It’s all his production. My part is in the samples. He didn’t cut them; they’re all free-rolling. I’m surprised he respected that, because I gave him the freedom to do what he wanted with them. He didn’t scratch or distort or muddy them up. We kind of finished each other’s sentences. When we talked about including the drum in the album, he wanted more, and I wanted less, because I wanted to keep it one piece of him and one piece of me.

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As far as your singing on the album, are you using traditional melodies, or are they your creations?

They’re all my creations. There are only a few songs in pow wow song form. There are a few that are just freestyles, I guess you could say. Broder sent me beats, and I told him to make them long, even if he had to loop them. I’d just zone out and listen to what he sent me, then I would hum and catch the syncopation that went along with the beat.

Are the songs on the album lyrical, or are they purely vocables?

They’re all a pattern of vocables put to a melody. That’s just the pow wow song form. If you want to throw in language and get spicy, go ahead. That’s when you’re getting into contemporary pow wow music.

The album begins with a phone call from someone named Mike Rainey, singing over the phone from inside a prison. What’s the context there?

Mike is my younger cousin. He’s a song maker too. In there, he might not have anything to get [the song] down on, so he calls family members to get them down for him. I thought about using that as a sample, just because it was some of my singing education: Mike’s older brothers would call me when they were in prison, telling me, “Hey man, I made this song, can you put it down?” One of my cousins was in there so long they let him have a mini cassette recorder.