riffing, bricolage, and survivance

once again, the advocate of survivance (rather than neo-traditionalism) chimes in, “what did you expect? do you think that borrowing from other musics makes us ‘fake indians’?”

fake? james luna's high tech peace pipe (metal, plastic, beads) challenges us to think of the unexpected materials of indigenous life today

fake? james luna’s high tech peace pipe (metal, plastic, beads) challenges us to think of the unexpected materials of indigenous life today

because indians are always playing indian–vizenor, you might recall, referred to indian as a settler colonial role, a social category that settler colonial society compels really existing indigenous people to accept–because playing indian is often the only way to achieve recognition, we might expect that no small amount of sonic and discursive anxiety attends musical performance. i often think of this as a corollary of the “enigma effect” through which an ‘amis drinking song becomes, in its circulation in world music channels, a “sounds so spiritual…what are the lyrics?’ primitivist “chant” expressing an essential oneness with nature. although the enigma effect has to do with the control over representation that producers of world music have over the sources that they curate and remix, the corollary which i consider here is the affirmation, perhaps ironically, of some components of the “indian” role.

vizenor and deloria both had a sense of this problem; more recently, faudree has approached it in her discussion of the contrast between “indigeneity” and “indigenousness” in the discourses of indigenous literature and songwriting. adding to this discussion, siebert has shown how contemporary native american artists “play indian” to critical effect. in my work, i’ve often tried to consider the lives of those whose formation of indigeneity remains orthogonal to neo-traditionalist practices; yet, the ironies of neo-traditionalist discourses are always at hand

today, i’d like to look at one of those ironies, one that walked up to me and smacked me in the face: “what did you expect?” this ironic spirit asked me again, “you don’t really know anything about indigenous musics and musicians, after all!”

i’ll admit that when i was at berklee’s annual celebration of earth day, “earthapalooza,” the insinuation of fakery could not but whisper in my ears as the group of native american musicians, in a kind of generic regalia recalling land o’ lakes butter and minnetonka moccasins, took the stage. again, i should be careful here; the group was led by a white mountain apache woman and included haudenosaunee, mexican, and anglo players. the regalia probably needed to have a generic quality to avoid the spectre of mis-appropriation. more than fashion, however, the drum song was what sent my eyebrows rather skyward: after introducing the first piece as a traditional hopi buffalo dance song, the women, seated around the drum began to sing a tune that i could not but recognize:

(the above link is of a 1973 canyon records issue of a recording by bernard dawahoya and hopi  singers performing the buffalo dance song)

do you recognize it?

it’s the tune of li ko-jan’s 1940 film theme hit, “Shina no Yoru” (China Nights)


i listened, and was not exactly sure how to respond. after all, the piece was introduced as a “traditional hopi buffalo dance song, about the beauty of buffalo running across the plains.” and yet, i knew that the tune–and even the shape of the lyrics, which ended in the unmistakable cadence, “yo yo”–was from a japanese film. was the band a group of “fake indians” (there are more than a few of them around)? the performance a clever joke played upon credulous whites, who would expect an “indian” song about nature and oneness with non-human creatures?

i might be a bit tuned into, even suspicious of, such ironies, fakery, and  jokes. after all, on taiwan, the two “aboriginal” songs performed most often, particularly for and by non-indigenous audiences are of dubious origin. one, “gao shan ching,” disseminated globally as “taiwanese mountain compatriots’ folk dance” was created by an ethnic chinese composer and lyricist duo both of whom followed the nationalist party (KMT) to taiwan; the other, “we are one family,” written by a pinyunaman composer, hews a bit too closely to a settler colonial agenda of docile “mountain compatriots.” both are routinely derided by indigenous activists on taiwan, but they are the staple of “aboriginal” tourist spectacles and ethnic chinese attempts to “play indian”

“playing indian” for tourist dollars, 2014. this song, written by chinese songwriters, remains the most widely circulated “taiwanese aboriginal song.” 

needless to say, i am a bit suspicious of such offerings; after all, the “gao shan ching” arrangement shows up in the later work of indigenous arrangers and producers, such as those who produced the work of ‘amis popular singer, lu jing-tzu

yet, this riff on “sina no yoru” was different, in that it was a japanese popular song transformed aesthetically into a hopi social dance tune. what was going on?

for me, it was a mystery: how could  “sina no yoru” show up in a performance by regalia wearing native american singers, introduced as “first a traditional song before we go on to sing more modern native american songs”?


perhaps a bit of explanation is in order. li ko-jan (yoshiko shirley yamaguchi) was the female lead of a series of japanese wartime films, which were vital parts of japan’s war mobilization in china and across the japanese empire.

a face that sailed a thousand ships: sayon no kane, starring li ko-jan as sayon, sent legions of taiwanese indigenous youth to the front

li’s physical presence and beautiful voice lift these films above the level of mere propaganda. although we should be ambivalent about the role of these films, particularly “the bell of sayon” as products of japanese militarism, postwar publics in china, taiwan, and korea have not consigned li / yamaguchi to the dusty corner or museum vitrine–much less garbage bin–reserved for fascist relics. although the films have been studied, they do not have the status of leni riefenstahl’s “triumph of the will” or “olympia.” they are not critical favorites whose ideological taint requires endless apologies of, “um, it’s about the cinematic art” variety. rather, popular songs from li’s films maintain positions in the popular music canon, sung in karaokes, covered by later artists, and recognized as “nostalgic old songs” by a wide audience

in addition to her popularity across east asia, li had a share of american admirers. after the war li ko-jan married japanese american artist isamu noguchi and, as shirley yamaguchi, enjoyed a career as a b movie and television movie actress. “sina no yoru” (china nights), possibly her most popular song, was beloved of american GIs who served in east asia, who knew the tune as “she ain’t got no yo yo”


she ain’t got no yo yo: a korean war veteran engages in nostalgia at the piano

the song also circulated in american country music, in an english language version recorded by dick curless, whose “rice paddy ranger” show appeared on armed forces radio korea during the korean war.

“sina no yoru” as “she ain’t got no yo yo” or “china nights” could have easily been picked up by hopi musicians serving in the u.s. armed forces or listening to anglophone country music; in fact, i have a vinyl recording of the song from my grandfather.

yet, how the song became a hopi buffalo dance song was still a question. as it turns out, not much has been written on buffalo dances. elsie clewes parsons gave a description of hopi social dance in a field report appearing in man; during the early 1960s, ethnomusicologist george list wrote about social dance and influences on hopi song. although his work suggested that new forms of social dance borrowing explicitly from western (i.e., anglo-american) sources had appeared at the time of his fieldwork, in “acculturation and musical tradition,” an article appearing in the ICTM journal, list (1964: 21) argued that buffalo dance songs “show little Euroamerican influence.” perhaps list was not familiar with yamaguchi’s oeuvre?

performances of the buffalo dance are easily discovered on youtube. these contemporary performances generally resemble what ethnomusicologists and anthropologists have noted: these are social dances in which masked dancers perform together without touching. unlike varieties of sacred dance, social dance includes men and women. accompaniment is provided by drums and a chorus of singers

hopi buffalo dance at walpi, first mesa 2015

after watching several videos of buffalo dances from the naughts and early teens, however, i haven’t heard a performance of the “sina no yoru” tune. yet–as we know from list and others–the borrowing, as it turns out, is not all that exceptional. hopis borrowed song material from other groups into their social dances relatively frequently, often including the original lyrics interspersed with hopi vocables.

thus, appropriating “sina no yoru”–down to the hook line lyrics– fits an already existing practice. when we turn to
liner notes for “hopi social dance songs,” a 1973 recording issued by canyon records, we see the story of the buffalo dance tune performed at berklee’s earthapalooza clearly enough:

The Hopi buffalo dance song on side two of the record has a very unusual origin. It is based on a Chinese melody heard by a Hopi soldier while stationed in Korea. Upon returning home after the Korean War, he composed a Hopi buffalo dance song based on his favorite Chinese melody. In turn other groups have picked up this beautiful Hopi buffalo dance. The text of buffalo songs usually tell of the coming of spring, butterflies and everything turning green (from drumhop.com)

our performers at earthapalooza told us about “the coming of spring, green pastures, and buffalo,” but not about the origin of the tune. did they know? if they knew, would it make sense to tell an anglo audience? the spectre of fake indians is never that far away, but we might wish to dispel this spectre by considering riffing and bricolage as already existing modes of hopi social dance. does the borrowing of “sina no yoru,” complete with the yo yo yo yo cadence reduce the value of the song as social dance? the performance of it as a buffalo dance tune does cohere with generic expectations of social dance tunes. how much of the history of the tune, the favorite “chinese melody” of a hopi GI serving in korea, do we need to understand its contemporary circulation in native american communities? maybe not much, but i suspect that the performers at earthapalooza might not wish to have a conversation about provenance with earnest anglos expecting “native traditions”

in that regard, it is curious that comments on the youtube video (1) complain that the image of kachina dancers appended to the video is misrepresentative; and (2) wonder whether there really are / were / could be buffalo in the desert environment where the hopi live. “there must have been!” says one commenter, “otherwise, why would these tunes exist?”

the reality of borrowing would seem to detract from a discourse of autochthony, but such discourses, the trickster at my shoulder tells me, are incitements to play indian in ways that allow settler colonial societies to exile really existing hopi to the pristine, hermetically sealed past of indianness. but riffing on “she ain’t got no yo yo” and passing it off to whites as “our ancestral tradition” is a form of survivance. it engages in globally circulating popular culture while satirizing the desire of settler colonial society to keep indians “in place” on the rez

so in addition to a take on “indians in unexpected places”we might also need to think about the unexpected places of “traditional indian musics,” which turn out to include 1930s shanghai. she ain’t got no yo yo, but we do!

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