Program 208 – Contemporary Rhythms

The Black Lodge Singers at the JazzFest in New Orleans, Louisiana.

The Black Lodge Singers at the JazzFest in New Orleans, Louisiana. 2001. Photo courtesy of STL Blues Reviews.

The Black Lodge Singers

with Milt Lee

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Arlie Neskahi :
One of the best known drum groups on the Powwow circuit today is the Black Lodge singers. These Grammy-nominated singers are led by Kenny Scabby Robe of the Blackfeet nation. Their mother Louise is a Yakima native, and they live in White Swan, Washington. It was their idea to introduce a new style of Powwow music – songs for kids. Not the traditional kids songs about grasshoppers and prairie dogs, but songs about Mickey Mouse, Mighty Mouse, and other cartoon characters. Milt Lee caught up with Black Lodge in Rapid City, South Dakota.

Powwow background sound.

Black Lodge Singer Kenny Scabby Robe with wife, Louise.

Black Lodge Singer Kenny Scabby Robe with wife, Louise. Photo by Milt Lee

Milt Lee:
The Black Lodge singers are almost a legend in Indian country and the Powwow circuit. Although Powwow music is considered traditional music, Black Lodge gives it a contemporary step. They introduced women singers, replaced vocables with English words, and even developed children’s songs to help the young ones learn to sing.

I interviewed Kenny Scabby Robe about eight years ago for another project. Black Lodge was one of the drum groups at the July Powwow held every summer at the Rapid City Civic Center in South Dakota.

Kenny’s wife, Louise, was one of the first women to sing with a drum group publicly. Some places like back this way like, Montana and eastern Ontario are kind of skeptic about women singers. But I think she was one of the ones that I know, Nellie Two Bulls used to sing. But she was kind of the one that broke the ice on the northwestern part, you know, like, Montana today or Alberta, and Saskatchewan. A lot of the people didn’t, couldn’t see women singers, and when they first seen her singing, you know, they couldn’t believe it. They had to go watch to see if she really did sing. But she did sing, and she knew all the songs.

Song with Kenny’s Wife .
Mom’s Song

Lee: Black Lodge is from White Swan, Washington and they are Blackfoot. One of the things that impresses me about the Black Lodge singers is the way the old meets the new. For instance, their use of English in songs.

Scabby Robe: Some of the middle age men that we know, that they don’t understand Indian, they don’t understand their language, the majority of them. So we made these songs according to them, that they might be able to listen to what we are talking about. If we said it in Indian, Desert Storm, World War I, World War II, they would never know what we are talking about. So, but we put Indian words in there, like they came back, we should be glad they came back, and then we put in the English version, kind of mixed it in half and half.

Wars Veteran’s song

But that’s one reason it inspired me. It inspired me because my brother-in-law and some of my nephews who were in the service, and I have nothing to give back to them, except through these songs. I can, and maybe they will appreciate, you know, and make them know that I appreciate them for what they have done.

Wars Veteran’s Song

But the innovation that has made Black Lodge so well known was their ground breaking album, Kid’s Powwow Songs. I remember the first time I heard Mickey Mouse, Mini Mouse, I was blown away.

Scabby Robe:
(laughs) I just kind of made that one up. One day I was driving on the freeway and just I and my wife were driving, you know. I says, “I think a lot about these young kids, these young tiny tots and you know they, a lot of them are starting to dance now.” And I said, “We should try to do something a little bit different. Maybe make up a song for them, something that they will enjoy. Even though I know it is not traditional.” “But,” I said, “Since it is the twentieth century, I says, we can do something like this and maybe the kids will have something to. If they learn the song, and maybe they will get into the rhythm of singing, and they will want to sing regular traditional songs.” And that was the main purpose. So we was out driving on the freeway, and I start singing this song, and, and that’s how I got it.

Mickey Mouse
Twinkle Twinkle Little Star

Although the children’s songs are light and fun, Kenny is clear that their purpose is a spiritual one as well as a secular one. He teaches his boys to pray to the drum. He requires that they be alcohol free, that they be on time, that they have respect for their drum and their public role with the people.

Scabby Robe:
Maybe sometimes you see the boys touch the drum and pray and give thanks to that drum, that that music will always be perfect. It’s not always going to be perfect, but we pray that, not for our betterment but for the people that it touches. These songs can touch people. And maybe some young person will feel that feeling, and they will want to be able to sing, to do what you are doing. And that way you get him off the streets or whatever he is doing bad. That’s how we think.

Breaking new ground isn’t always easy. There are strong traditions in Indian country and not everybody liked the new sound. But Kenny and the Black Lodge singers persisted, wanting to bridge that gap between the old and new, as well as between cultures.

Family Song

Scabby Robe:
Our people are a little bit skeptic about us, when we came out with word songs. They said, they are only supposed to be used for ceremonial, you know, like giveaways or, but they accept it now. And a lot of them are using our music now. (Chuckles)

For Wisdom of the Elders, I’m Milt Lee.

Contemporary Rhythms is written and produced by Milt Lee of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe and his wife, Jamie Lee, who live and work in Rapid City, South Dakota. Check out their website, realrez dot com for more of their work.