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Music Review: Tomahawk Anonymous

I've never known any CD whose description began with the phrase "influenced by the music of (insert name of culture here)" to be anything other than some watered down version of the aforementioned culture. This has been the case especially with so many recordings of so called Native American music.

A dead give away, as far as I'm concerned is that the music is invariably filed under "New Age". It can be counted on to be some sort of ethereal nonsense passing itself off as spiritual or authentic even though the primary instrument used is the synthesiser that has as much to do with traditional Native music as I do.

If you're especially fortunate it might actually incorporate some Native flute music, or perhaps even a drum. But they have both been watered down so much that they retain only a shadow of their former potency. One only has to listen to recordings made during a Pow Wow of the large drum and compare them with the pabulum on sale to understand the difference.

You would think that if you were attempting to convince people of the authenticity of your appropriation of someone else's culture that you might actually use traditional Native songs. But no, on most of these discs the songs are all written by the performer and given genuine Native sounding names that reflect his or her "spiritual connection " to the values of Native Americans.
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So to come across a CD like Anonymous by the group Tomahawk is like a breath of fresh air in an otherwise polluted atmosphere. They make no spurious claims about authenticity or have the audacity to write material based on another culture's stories. Guitarist Duane Denison became interested in Native material after touring reservations with Hank Williams III. He thought there had to be to Native music than what was currently on offer, so he began to do some searching.

What he found was music books dating back to the time Teddy Roosevelt was President that contained transcribed "Indian Songs". Because there were no credits for the songs they chose to call the album Anonymous to honour the memory of the unknown folk whose music was so tentatively preserved. The titles they have chosen for the songs on their album are the same titles listed for the songs that inspired their interpretations. They also throw in a "Parlour Song", "Long, Long, Weary Day" as an example of other anonymous music from the same period.

What is so very impressive about the music on this album is how they've approached their interpretations, Instead of trying to recreate faithful replicas of the songs, which would have been ridiculous, they have opted to offer modern interpretations using the instruments at their disposal; guitar, bass, drum kit and of course vocals.

If you were expecting something light and fluffy like you would find clogging the arteries of music everywhere, then you've come to the wrong disc. Denison, John Stanier(drums) and vocalist Mike Patton have put together an album of material that attempts to reflect the core feelings of the source music, not accurately recreate them. Songs like "Ghost Dance" (which must have been the actual Ghost Dance judging by the time period of the source material) for instance aims to try and capture the essence of the original song's spirit and the emotions behind it.

Each song is approached in the same manner and defeats any expectations any of us may have had about Native Music. Loud guitars and hard rock arrangements of a couple of the songs took a moment to get used to. But once you understood the intent and figure out what the band is doing with a song, it all made sense.

At no time did any of the arrangements sound anything but respectful of the material they were working with, and is a damn site better than another collection of insipid Native Flute songs. In fact not since Robbie Robertson put together the Red Road Ensemble back in the early 1990's to record a soundtrack for the television special The Native Americans have I heard popular music used so effectively to represent Native music.

Anonymous by Tomahawk is a surprise in many ways, but the best surprise is the CD it self. It may not be to everyone's taste, but I thought it one of the best representations of Native music to have come down the pipe in a long time, if for nothing else then the real emotion displayed by the songs and by the performers.

Tomahawk understands the difference between honouring and appropriating another's culture and that shines through on this disc with every cut. I hope people pay attention to this album for a lot of reasons, but at the very least to learn from the fine example Tomahawk sets by the way they deal with another culture.

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