JEMEZ PUEBLO — The ancient style of a northern Native American tribe’s drum beat echoes throughout the Jemez Pueblo valley during sacred ceremonies.
Although this rhythm originated in the north, it was handed down as a gift to one of this year’s Platinum Music Award honorees, who already has a Grammy for teaching this unique style to the members of his pueblo.
Malcom Yepa, leader of the Black Eagle Powwow Drum Group, said he began teaching this new style of drumming to the pueblo 30 years ago after he was given permission from a northern tribal elder to use it in a ceremony.
“Chief Jimmy Little Coyote had always been asking us to come and visit him in Montana,” Yepa said. “So we packed our bags and made the journey northward to experience his culture.”
While visiting with Little Coyote, Yepa said he was led to an arena to experience the music of a northern Plains Indian drum circle.
“He showed me what was appropriate for this type of ceremony and he told me I could bring this culture back to the Southwest to share with my people,” Yepa said. “So in honor of him, we began teaching Plains Indian music here.”
Yepa said it was a challenge at first to get all of the drummers to beat in unison, which is part of the drum style, he was taught.
“Everybody has a different timing when they hit the drum…somebody’s going to be faster, or slower, so we had to work on timing and be aware of the other guy’s stick,” Yepa said. “We had to visualize a single steady beat, which was a hard accomplishment to achieve.”
After many hours and days of practice, Yepa said the drum circle began to mesh and emulate the sound he was given as a gift.
“When we finally got it together, you could feel the good energy from it all,” he said. “It gives you strong happy feelings because all your practice paid off for something special.”
It is that very energy that makes a ceremony special, he said, because it permeates throughout the area experiencing it.
Cassandra Toledo, the only female member of the Black Eagles, said she became interested in the drum circle at 3 years old.
“It was rough at first when some of us started out as kids,” Toledo said. “We didn’t have to audition or anything, we just had to show interest, and for those of us who have stuck to it, we got better with time.”
For many of the members of the Black Eagles, she said, the drum circle is a way for many them to travel around the country and experience new things.
“We’ve performed for many dignitaries, including the opening for the Smithsonian, which there were over 100,000 people in attendance,” she said. “We also performed for many political and congressional leaders over the years.”
As far as practice goes, Toledo said many of the members make time when they can between school and work. But everything changes during powwow season, she said. It’s during this time drum circle members practice on a regular basis.
“Our elders and family members are really proud of what we represent,” Toledo said. “I think they like listening to our music because it’s something different, it’s northern and a lot people haven’t been exposed to that culture.”
Yepa said he revels in his role as a mentor for the next generation because of the importance of keeping traditions alive.
“I always tell the kids to keep up the beat and the tempo and the songs,” Yepa said. “We aren’t just doing this for ourselves; we are doing it for the people and the whole world to give a good vibe.”
Yepa, along with members of the Black Eagles Powwow Drum Circle, will perform at this year’s Platinum Music Awards in Santa Fe on Aug. 30.
For more information on the Platinum Music Awards, go to platinummusicawards.org.