First Nations anthropological enquiry..?

Here is something that has always mystified me about the music of our First Nations peoples:

( "First Nations" is the term we've come to use in Canada when referring to the many aboriginal peoples across the country. In the U.S and elsewhere I'm not sure what you say? "Indian?")

Having had a life-long interest in the history and pre-history of the First Nations, I have always noticed one thing about the use of traditional music in these aboriginal cultures. My impressions do not come from Hollywood ( gimmee a break), but from living in close contact with First Nations peoples in the vicinity of the plains and foothills of the Rocky Mountains near Calgary, Alberta. The nations there are: Blackfooot, Stoney, Sarcee, Sioux, Cree, Crow...hope I haven't missed any!

Well, the music of these peoples seems to be most often associated with ceremonial dancing. The main musical instruments seem to be drums and whistles. A dominant rhythmic vocalization is the outstanding sound. I notice that the singers all across the different tribes seem to all produce the same lyrical and rhythmic template: a repetitive lyrical line sounding something like this to my Wasichu ears: "Hey! Ya ya ya ya ya ya ya Hey! ya ya ya ya ya ya," with the accent always on the first note, the "Hey!". This makes a hypnotic sound, and it melds perfectly with dance.

First Nations musical tradition reminds me in a way of East Indian traditional music in this sense. For example, Indian ragas repeat one musical pattern over and over, it's almost hypnotic.

To anyone who might have some expertise in this topic:

(1) IS this vocalization that I think I hear - I refer to the "Hey! ya ya ya ya ya ya ya" pattern - true, or am I hearing the music through uneducated ears? What are the singers saying, if anything? As this pattern seems to occur across all the tribes (who have their own distinct languages), it makes me suspect that this vocalization may, in fact, not be lyric at all, but something closer to the 'scat' stylistic vocalization that occurs in modern jazz music.

(2)DID the word we white bread folk know as "Hey" somehow develop a common meaning over the ages amongst the many First Nations cultures?

(3) DOES the "Hey" opening heard in aboriginal musical lyric carry the same dictionary meaning as that in modern English: i.e. "Greetings," "Hello" 'Hail" etc. etc.?

2 Answers

  • 8 years ago
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    You are hearing the music through uneducated ears. Every dance has a specific drumbeat.

    The vocalization you are talking about is used in several different ways. It's used to carry the melody and as a transition. It can be used either way or both ways in a song.

    Most songs are sung in a Native language. The lyrics are short as opposed to English lyrics. The same lyrics are repeated throughout the song. The vocalization you are talking about carries the melody between the lyrics. Often there are transition points within the lyrics.

    The following song is sung in English. You can hear where the vocalization is used to carry the melody and when it's used as a transition. "Round Dance" songs are usually sung in English and the lyrics are longer than those sung in a Native language because English is a verbose language.

    Northern Cree - Smilin (Round Dance)

    Youtube thumbnail

    The following songs are sung in a Native language and the vocalization is used as a transition.

    Whitefish Bay Ogichidaakwe (Woman's Jingle Dress)

    Youtube thumbnail

    Northern Cree Singers (Men's Grass Dance)

    Youtube thumbnail

    In this song the vocalization carries a melody/beat in transition between the lyrics.

    Black Lodge Singers (Crow Hop)

    Youtube thumbnail


    Some songs have only vocalization and no lyrics. There are two reasons for this.

    (1) In some cases, the story was in the dance, so there was no need for lyrics.

    (2) Any group assembly of the First Nations was illegal as was their cultural practises. When that ban was lifted in the 60s there was a revival of their cultural practises.

    At that time people had to travel to different cultural areas where the cultural events were being revived. Different Nations began to intermix and share their songs and dances. Because of the different languages spoken, the songs with no lyrics were used so that every drum group could sing the songs. Now, the drum groups teach their Native language lyrics to other drum groups.

    Pow wows are now a sharing of different Nations cultural songs and dances. That's why there are so many different drumbeats they come from different nations. Different cultural areas have different drumbeats. There are many drumbeats from the various Nations that are never heard a pow wows.

    The following songs have no lyrics

    Smokeytown (Woman's Double Beat)

    Youtube thumbnail

    Blackstone Singers - Victory Song

    Youtube thumbnail


    The vocalizations have no meaning. Vocalizations are only used to maintain the rhythm and beat.


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  • 6 years ago

    I'm not "Hearing things, thank-you!"

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