Tom Bee Brings Native American Music to a Higher Level
BY: Brad MacDonald
In the early '70s, the band XIT was one of the first to fuse rock's electric sound with traditional Native American music. The band also used rock's rebellious voice to air the radical demands of Native American politics of the time. The band toured widely, not only on reservations in the United States but also around the world, and for Native Americans, XIT's three albums--two on the Motown label--occupy the same place as the Rolling Stones' memorable disks do in boomers' record collections. This summer, XIT celebrated the 30th anniversary of the band's signing with Motown with a performance at the Mystic Lake, Minn., music festival presented by the Shakopee, Mdewakaton, and Sioux tribes. This fall, PBS will air "XIT: Without Reservations," a documentary honoring the band's achievements.
Tom Bee, a Dakota Sioux from Gallup, N.M., was a founding member of XIT, and the band's manager. After the group quit playing in the latter half of the '70s, Bee pursued his interest in the business side of music, founding his own label, Sound of America Recordings (SOAR), which he runs from a small office in Albuquerque. The label is dedicated to expanding the definition, and appreciation, of Native American music. Last year, the Native American Music Association recognized Bee with its Lifetime Achievement award.
His NAMMY award is not the kind of brag Bee brings up in an interview. He'd rather tell about his latest achievement in the name of Native American music. Last year, after 10 years of Bee's cajoling, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences finally gave Native American music its own category at the annual Grammy awards show. "When I first got involved, there was no one else on the playing field," says Bee, in his characteristically rambling mixture of self-promotion, modesty, and old-school football references. "No one else had the guts to step forward, they all didn't want to get involved in a so-called radical movement. There was no one in the locker room but me. In fact, the locker room smelled of death and ... mildew. And when I went in there, I turned on the lights, put on the pads, and hit the playing field alone, so I was both the player and coach."
Thanks to Bee, and the network of musicians, fans, and activists that have joined him in the past 10 years, NARAS added Native American music as a subset of the academy's folk division. Bee feels the timing is good. "I think we're living right now in a fast-paced world, a fast-paced society, and people are looking for a meditative release and they want something that basically takes them to a higher level, that takes them to an inner-wellness-type feeling." Bee elaborates: "The basic core of Native American music has got a lot of spiritual elements. A lot of soothing, meditative elements that I think are just down the alley of today's market because we're living in such chaotic surroundings."
That doesn't mean all the artists on Bee's SOAR label stick to the meditative chants of the traditional Native American sound: rock and roll, rap, even reggae make their appearance, as well as Christian Native American music.
Despite making a place to call his own at the Grammys, Tom Bee hopes Native American musicians will be heard and judged like anyone else. He wants "to see Native American artists accepted into the mainstream as legitimate songwriters and musicians based just on the strength of their music, and not on the strength of their heritage. Particularly the contemporary artists, but also many of the traditional artists want to know that their music is loved. That it has had a valid impact on the world."