not unusual to find musicians from different genres - or from different
cultures - collaborating. Opera star Luciano Pavarotti belted out
the blues with Eric Clapton and South Africa's Ladysmith Black Mambazo
recorded an album with folk legend Paul Simon.
Another more recent musical mash-up has
a traditional Native American drum group performing with a classical
The Porcupine Singers,
a traditional Lakota drum group, performs throughout South Dakota.
So does the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra. But they never performed
together - until last year.
"Any conductor coming into a new music
directorship with an orchestra is gonna spend time taking stock
of the community and how the orchestra serves the community," says
Delta David Gier, who took the helm of the South Dakota Symphony
Orchestra in 2004. His goal was to bring classical music to what
he saw as traditionally underserved areas of the state. His immediate
thought was the African-American community.
"I met this woman who was in charge of
the Martin Luther King Day celebrations in Sioux Falls and we struck
up a conversation. I said, 'You know, a lot of orchestras are involved
with Martin Luther King Day. They have concerts and invite African-American
choirs and artists and so on.' She listened and when I finished
talking she said, 'That's really nice if you want to pursue that.
But I've got to tell you, I'm a black woman and I don't have a problem
in South Dakota. If you want to talk about racial prejudice here,
you've got to talk about Native Americans.'"
Gier followed her advice
and set up a meeting with some of the state's Native American leaders,
including Barry Lebeau, a Lakota who works with Native American
artists across the state.
Lebeau told him that ensembles from the
South Dakota Symphony Orchestra had visited various reservations
over the years for educational purposes.
"But he wanted to do something more that
involved the greater symphony and American Indian music," says Lebeau.
"I was intrigued."
LeBeau put Gier in touch with Ronnie Theisz,
professor emeritus of American Indian Studies at Black Hills State
University. Although he's not a Native American, Theisz has sung
with the Porcupine Singers since 1972. He's now their oldest and
most experienced member.
The group is known across
the country for keeping the traditional songs of the Lakota alive.
They've sung at the Kennedy Center and in the film "Dances With
Wolves". But collaborating with the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra
raised a concern
"For traditional singers, the compelling
value is always to preserve the tradition, not to experiment too
much, not to change things to make it like Anglo music," Theisz
But since the Lakota Music Project, as
it was called, would combine aspects of classical and traditional
Lakota music, Theisz and the Porcupine Singers felt it could work.
And - from its first performance in May, 2009, it did.
The first part of a Lakota Music Project
concert offers individual selections by both groups, musically reflecting
the human conditions of love, war, death and joy. During the second
half of the program, the groups combine their sounds in a composition
written especially for the project.
Both Native and non-Native
musicians enjoyed the collaboration. Violinist Magdalena Modzelewska,
who grew up in Poland, has played with the orchestra since 1998.
She sees this project as an incredible musical and cultural journey.
"You feel the, the greatness of the moment,
the importance of it," she says. "And it's wonderful, It really
Porcupine Singer Emanuel Black Bear agrees.
"We sing a lot of old songs, and so does
the orchestra. A lot of thought's gone into these songs and what
we're doing and it's for our music. You know, no matter what race
you are, it's the music."
And the music will continue. Another piece
has been commissioned for future performances so the Lakota Music
Project can continue to share and expand its unique sound.