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Nammys11; Wow! Who’da Thunk It?

Reflecting On 11+ Years Of NAMMY Ceremonies Devoted To NDN Music!

By Marco Frucht

Rewritten by hand from NYTimes & Long Island Voice articles originally crafted by Robbie Woliver. [*]

The NAMMYS, Ellen Bello’s friends and relatives, and even Ellen herself make up just part (an active part!) of some very profound prophesies.

Recently, Bello chucked her successful PR company, In-Press Communications, and big-name clients (Nirvana, The Buzzcocks, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Sub Pop Records, the Chieftains, Sisters of Mercy, the Chieftains) in exchange for a life devoted to bringing indigenous music to the world’s consciousness.

She founded the Native American Music Awards, or Nammys, the Native American Music Association, or NAMA, a nonprofit organization attempting to preserve and promote American Indian music traditions. She also began lobbying the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences to create a Native American music category for their Grammy awards.

“Jazz is generally called America’s first music,” Bello says, “well that’s wrong. Native music was around before any other type of music, even classical.” Bello says it is owed respect.

Ms. Bello’s involvement began in 1991, when she met Lakota rock group 7th Generation at a Native American music festival in NYC. She stayed in touch with them for a long time and provided professional support pro bono. When the band members invited her to visit them on their reservation in South Dakota she jumped at the chance.

“I was overwhelmed with mixed feelings,” Ms. Bello said. “I was saddened and troubled by their living conditions and quality of life. It’s almost a third-world country. But on the other hand, I was ecstatic and inspired, because as poor as they were, they were so rich in spirit and culture.”

“What was so exhilarating was that when I encountered these people, I saw that my values were aligned with theirs,” Ms. Bello said. “There was a kinship. There was a part of me that I was discovering in South Dakota that couldn’t exist in me in New York.”

Immersing herself in other cultures, she quickly realized there was a severe lack of opportunity for musicians like 7th Generation. She gave up her glitzy show-business world and began concentrating on the earthier needs of Indian musicians.

“It was an interesting dichotomy I was discovering,” she said. “Living with these people and comparing it to the people I knew in New York, I wondered, ‘Do you have to sacrifice money to find wealth and spirituality?'”

With the goal of educating while entertaining the public, it took Ms. Bello two years to develop the music awards concept. The first awards ceremony was held in 1998, at the Foxwoods Resort Casino, run by the Mashantucket Pequot nation, in Connecticut. With Wayne Newton as host, it featured a range of other Indian artists from Robbie Robertson (of the Band) to Chief Jim Billie (chief of Florida’s Seminole tribe), to the Red Bull Drum Group of Canada. More than 100 tribal nations were represented.

Robertson said: “To me, this is a sign of the times. A sign of the acceptance of native music out in the world like never before. And this is just the beginning.”

Joanne Shenandoah, a leading Native American musical artist and two-time recipient of NAMA’s Female Vocalist of the Year Award, said, “The work Ellen started is giving native musicians long overdue exposure and respect.”

Despite all the hard work year round, of running the awards, forming the foundation, running a Web site and lobbying the Grammys organization, Ms. Bello’s life has become simpler, more earthbound.

NAMA has several missions: serving as a clearinghouse and archive for America’s indigenous music, operating as a youth training and artist placement service, providing scholarships and sponsoring seminars and workshops. The organization’s 3,500-hour archive is the largest collection of Native American music, surpassing the Library of Congress’s approximate 2,500 hours, Ms. Bello said. (The Library of Congress includes more historical music.)

One activity Ms. Bello hopes to formulate soon are folk-styled seminars by tribal elders. “It would be a live music library with the elders passing on the musical traditions to the youth,” she said.

Another mission of the association is to provide scholarships; four have already been presented. One recipient, Mary YoungBear, a 40-year-old mother of four and grandmother of three from the Tama Meswaki Indian Settlement in Iowa, moved to New Mexico to attend the Institute for American Indian Arts.

“Because I am not eligible for most financial aid,” said Ms. YoungBear, “the scholarship I received went a long way toward financing my tuition. Also, the whole experience of the Native American Music Awards is something I will carry with me as long as I am alive.”

“There’s a great humbleness and spirituality in our music,” said Ms. Shenandoah, who performs around the world, and recently sang at the White House, “and Ellen shares our Indian heart.

“The prophecy is coming to be now, and Ellen and her great work are certainly helping that along.”

[*]The liberties that the NYTimes editors took with Ellen Bello’s quotes enraged me, frankly. It’s likely I’ve misquoted her in here as well, because I did not interview her and I am not directly in touch with Robbie Woliver. But I compared both articles, weighing heavier on the Voice side just because it’s where the story started from. I believe with all my heart that I got closer to representing this story through these quotes than my former employer did. Yes, I’m saying the NYTimes (who snootily believe they are THE letter of record) just plain suck. Call me bold, call me crazy, but don’t call me. Having been on both sides of the interview structure at both the NYTimes and Washington Post, not to mention other smaller dailies and weeklies all over the world, I will say this clearly and unequivocally: Quotes are sacred. Struggle toward accuracy there, or get out of the way for us younger journalists to pave the way.

[**] NAMMYS will have their 11th annual Ceremony this Saturday night at 8pm. Watch it live on a videobroadcast at: