For the fourth and final installment in the Outside (In)dia series at the David Rubenstein Atrium on April 13, singer, songwriter, educator, and activist Martha Redbone brings her unique blend of Appalachian, Native American, blues, funk, and folk musical traditions to an evening of collaboration with Brooklyn Raga Massive. Before they join forces to explore both the roots and contemporary interpretations of seemingly disparate genres, Martha spoke to BRM member and bass player Michael Gam about her musical and cultural heritages, her role as an artist, and what she values about cross-cultural collaborations.
Michael Gam: How did this collaboration come about?
Martha Redbone: Sameer [Gupta] got in touch because he liked the idea of "India and Indian," and finding some musical connections with that. Where I come from, a lot of the music is American mountain music, and when we were comparing it to mountain music from India, a lot of those stringed instruments are very similar—made of different materials, but the overall sound and execution of it and the stories of mountain tribal people seem very similar.
MG: Your music is referred to as Americana. What does that mean to you?
MR: Americana starts with the first people. It starts with the land, and then from there it starts with the people brought here, and who have been here. In many ways what we think of as Americana is actually Native and Black, and that's why I'm here. This is why I do it. That's where it begins. The foundation is in the land and the people who were connected to this land. And Americana is also the sound of the colonizers. That's included in it as well.
I call our music "mountain music" because I'm all these things, I'm not just Black and Native, I'm also Irish and English, and that's also there in those mountains. I’m made of all those people in those mountains.
It's interesting how the music began and then morphed and kind of got claimed—blues became Black and country music became White, and it didn't used to be that. They used to just call them string bands. But because of Jim Crow things got segregated, and the music got segregated. There became a knee-jerk reaction to this mountain music because it's connected to colonization and slave ownership, so of course to Black people today it immediately feels like racist and KKK music. But it isn't. Bluegrass, for example, actually comes from African music. The banjo's African. And I think that people of color need to claim this instrument that came from our people, to claim it and make it our own.
MG: Can you speak a little bit more about the similarities you found as you were working with BRM?
MR: With regard to India, the music of the mountains has huge similarities musically, and there's also music for every function: work songs, songs for healing, songs for prayer, songs for death, for mourning, all of that. When you hear these kind of bowed instruments, when you hear percussive instruments, they are different yet very similar in their use and their sound. For indigenous people around the world, that's always been a form of communication. We also have nature that we're trying to sound like—trees, wind, water, birds. These things are intrinsic to all people, no matter where they are. I mean, when you listen to Irish folk music or Klezmer music, or any Middle Eastern music, or Nomadic music, you hear that connection. I personally feel that all of it goes together because it's everyone bringing something to the table.
The show with BRM is going to be good fun. It's going to be really beautiful. We were listening to how we were going to put the songs together and I think it'll be really, really glorious.
"Everybody has a different journey, everybody has a different path, but all you can do to learn about each other is to hear what someone's individual story is and then you share yours."
MG: Do you feel that there's a role that we play as artists in trying to show connections between cultures, or creating this new American identity of people from all over?
MR: Part of the history of this country has been a kind of propaganda that was put forward for people to find an ideal of what America is, and in a way almost forget where they come from. That kind of mindset can serve some people well, if you know what I'm saying, but for other people, where there are particular laws in place absolutely equivalent to apartheid, it's a different story. So, for musicians I think—especially musicians of different cultures—it's part of our own personal journey that we want to try to share with people. There are plenty of musicians who don't want to touch on culture at all, they just want to play some really great music that turns them on and has nothing to do with any cultural connection or spiritual journey.
MG: What about for you?
MR: For me, it's everything. My journey is one where I feel like the older I get the more I want to just go back home and be a part of my home culture and to celebrate these people, these elders who I've learned everything from in a place that is now under imminent threat of the land being taken away, or the land disappearing. For me it's my own sense of urgency for the fear of losing a homeland.
What people forget is that this has been happening for centuries. People have been from everywhere coming here for centuries now. Colonization is in great effect for like 500 years. This is nothing new, but all we can do is tell our own stories. We can only share our own family story because that's all we know. Everybody has a different journey, everybody has a different path, but all you can do to learn about each other is to hear what someone's individual story is and then you share yours.
MG: Your individual story is something that can be explored on a macro level for many people.
MR: Yeah, and it can touch other people who have something similar.
Both Native and Black people have a long history of survival here. Enslaved people, oppressed people—we've survived it to the point where it's almost like we have to be careful that we don’t end up bumping heads. You also have to understand that there's been a lot of brainwashing over the years. And the oppressed start oppressing others. It's like the whole cycle of abuse. So, there's a lot of that that has to be worked out, there's a lot of healing, there's a huge healing process.
In my experience, for the most part Black people are always very proud to claim their Native heritage. I do not see it the other way around, and that's a huge problem. Most of the Native people that I know who are part Black don't want to acknowledge it, and I think that's because there was a time in American history where if you had any degree of Black blood, or African blood, it was considered tainted.
My friend wrote this recently: "Racism in this country did not start with slavery. There was systemic oppression and genocide before slaves were brought here. Where do you think they got the land and wealth that they used to oppress others by forcibly bringing them here to increase that wealth? It wasn't by treating the nations already here as equal to themselves. I guess what really makes me tired is the erasure of indigenous history on Turtle Island by others and by ourselves."
MG: So many of our imbalances today are about the erasure of what's happened before.
MR: Exactly. And that's why I have a big mouth today, musically, creatively, because I think it's important. And this is why I say, "I am Black, I am Native, I am Southeastern, I am Choctaw, I am Shawnee." I was raised by my mother, who is indigenous, and I refuse to take sides. I refuse anyone else trying to classify me, and, most important, I refuse to be a participant in my own people's genocide. There's no way that I will ever negate a huge part of my family. I will never, ever negate that. Then I'm contributing to the erasure. I will not just wipe everything away, nor do I think any White person should just say "I'm White." Right, but from where, you know?
"You always have to be careful when there's a society who's trying to make you forget who you are."
MG: Why is that remembrance so important?
MR: Because it's who we are. It's not even remembering, it's who we are. We're here today. It's not just celebrating the past—we're living, we are alive. We're here.
I'm sharing this in my music expression not because I've lost it but because I know that over the years it's opened the conversation for other people to find out who they are. So, when that conversation is opened up, it's like other people are wanting to learn more about themselves. If my music can inspire people to look within themselves to find some peace and some answers and open a dialogue and reconnect with their families and all of that, then I feel like the music is touching someone on a really spiritual level, and that's what makes me happy.
MG: Other than the BRM collaboration, are there similar projects you’re working on?
MR: This spring and summer, my partner and I are going to Sichuan, China. We've been asked to compose music for a project over there working with one of the mountain tribes. So, we're doing an East meets West mountain tribal music for a theater piece. And again, like the project with BRM, the tribe in China, they're mountain people as well, they're the Yi people, and they're at the foot of the Himalayas. Their instruments are extremely similar to our mountain instruments, like the equivalent to a dulcimer, banjo, jaw's harp, just made with different materials but used exactly the same way. So, we're playing around with that. And also, their work songs, their fishing songs, their celebration songs, they sound the same, just in a different language. I mean, it's absolutely remarkable. We're really thankful to be able to play in this project.
MG: What do you feel like you've learned from these types of things?
MR: What I've learned is, like the Lakota saying, Mitákuye Oyás'iŋ, "We are all related." And I think we're more alike than we give ourselves credit for. We really have to remind ourselves not to get caught up in the politics of race because those politics change with every administration. And these are social constructs that exist to serve a particular purpose, like government control. You always have to be careful when there's a society who's trying to make you forget who you are.
When people look at Black people and say, "Why are you guys always so angry? Why do you have a chip on your shoulder?" Think about their path. Think about what happened 500 years ago. Think about being taken away and sold from your parents. Think about the horrors that your ancestors watched. Think about not knowing where your tribe is or where your home is. Think about that legacy. Think about your name, not even knowing your original name, your family name. Every Black person in this country has the name of whoever owned them, and almost every Native person has exactly the same thing. So, when you think about those things, when you look at Black and Native people, just think about that.
We need to understand who we are, where we came from, respect our journey, respect our survival, and respect the time that we need to heal from the bullshit brought on everyone in this country. And it’s the same thing for new people who are coming in who are trying to hold onto who they are and where they come from. They have to hold onto that, and it's up to us to respect that.
Michael Gam is a bass player and percussionist in New York City and is a member of Brooklyn Raga Massive, a collective of musicians rooted in and inspired by Indian classical music.