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Canku Ota
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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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Micki Free, the Hard Rock Café, and the Future of Native American Music
by J. Poet
The tribes of Native America were making music on the North American continent for centuries before the Europeans arrived. The drumming of pow wow music was considered the heartbeat of the nation, a deep pulsating sound often parodied in cowboy films. Like many marginalized cultures, Native Americans developed their own style of music, often incorporating the sounds of blues, European folk, classical music, and more recently, rock ‘n’ roll. Like African American music before the advent of phonograph records, the sounds of Native America were developed outside the attention of mainstream American culture, with notable exceptions. Buffy Sainte-Marie, Robbie Robertson, R. Carlos Nakai, Grammy-winner Rita Coolidge, spoken-word artist John Trudell, and jazzman Jim Pepper have all broken through, but despite the initiation of a Native American Grammy category in 2000, most Native American artists—rockers, rappers, reggae singers—receive little attention from the music industry.

That situation will change in the next few years if Micki Free and the Seminole Tribe of Florida have anything to say about it. Free won a Grammy for “Don’t Get Stopped in Beverly Hills”, a song he co-wrote for the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack in 1985. He recently signed on as the Director of Promotions and Special Events for the Seminole tribe of Florida, owners of Hard Rock International, the company that runs the Hard Rock Café chain. With the power of the Seminole tribe behind him, Free is initiating several measures that will give Native American musicians a shot at national exposure.

“The Seminoles acquired the Hard Rock brand [except for the Hard Rock Casino in Las Vegas] in 2005,” Free explained from his home in Hollywood, Florida. “I’ve been working with them for six years. When the tribe took over, the Hard Rock brand was dying. They worked with Hard Rock CEO James Allen and rescued it. Today, Hard Rock Cafés are hotter than ever. Hard Rock Calling, put on by the Tribe and Live Nation, has been the biggest festival in London for the last five years with artists including Aerosmith, Clapton, McCartney, and other superstars. The tribe has also initiated new programs that will help bring more Indian musicians into the public eye.”

Those programs, put together with Free’s help, include packaging Native American artists together for the Native Music Rocks tours that play Hard Rock venues around the world, the Star Search talent contest, the Star Search Talent Camps, and the Native Music Rocks record label, distributed internationally by Fontana/Uni music.

“We book the Native Music Rocks shows into Hard Rock Cafés to showcase the best Native musicians around. We call it Native Music Rocks, not Native Rock, for a reason—because all Native music rocks! We’ve got blues artists, rappers, drum groups, singer/songwriters, rock ‘n’ rollers… you name it. This year I’m going on the road with my band, the Micki Free Electric Blues Experience. The opening acts will be Casper Lomayesva , a Hopi reggae artist that I signed to Native Music Rocks Records; Keith Secola, a rocker that some call the Native Bruce Springsteen; and Shay, a Cherokee blues singer who is just amazing. I’ve got a stack of CDs in my office from hundreds of independent [Native American] bands from all over the country. They all want a shot, and as we expand the program, we’re going to give every good act a chance. We’re doing a huge promotional campaign that will bring a lot of attention to the Hard Rock Cafés and Native Music Rocks.

“We started the Star Search talent contest in 2008, and we’re just gearing up for Star Search 2011. The contest is only open to Seminole tribe members at the present time, but we’re hoping to develop it into a nationwide talent search. When I created it, I modeled it after American Idol, but without the negative feedback. Every year we pick three winners and take them into the studio and produce their music. We do a couple of singles on each artist and upload them to iTunes, Amazon, and other digital retailers. Young people don’t seem to be buying full albums anymore; downloads are the wave of the future. We don’t sign everyone to a label deal, because the music biz as it once was is gone. If you can’t perform live or get some action on the internet, it ain’t gonna happen, baby. Radio only plays the huge artists, so we have to build things slowly. It’s just like the old days. You have to bring it live to get noticed. With the Hard Rock Cafés around the world, we have venues to help make that happen. It gives us a forum for the Star Search winners to get more attention.”

The Star Search contest is still developing, but Free and a panel of judges visit several Seminole reservations every year. The process is compact with auditions, semi-finals, and finals all during one long, grueling day. The finals take place at an evening show, and the winners are announced immediately. The contest is open to all genres and ages, from 10 years old and up. There is also a special Elders category for artists over 55. “I produce a couple of tunes for the winners, and for now, I’m the in-house producer, but that’s going to change as this thing takes off. We’ll be reaching out to other producers or let the winners produce themselves. Preston Osceola, one of the winners in 2009, is a guitarist with a great ear for music. I’m letting him produce himself. He’s 17, and he can already do it all.”

To help young entertainers get ready for their auditions, Free developed the Star Search Music Camps, daylong workshops that teach stage presence, image, hip-hop dancing, songwriting, technical skills, and stagecraft. “We show kids what they need to make it, besides luck. Markie D of the Fat Boys teaches hip-hop songwriting, Jon Brant (formerly of Cheap Trick) teaches guitar, and we groom the contestants for the Star Search finale. It’s open to all Seminole Tribal members. It used to be, on the Rez [reservation], you had two choices—sports or drugs. When the tribe hired me to develop a music program, I told them it would be for all the black fingernail kids. They’re the creative minds, the artists and musicians. I want the choice to be between sports and music and the performing arts, and, so far, it seems to be working.

“Right now, it’s a small operation, five to 12 students at the camp, five or 10 contestants in the Star Search. It works well because of its size, but tribes all across Native America are asking us about creating similar programs. That got me thinking about the John Lennon Educational Tour Bus. It’s an educational vehicle that travels around the country teaching kids how to record music and video. It has three recording studios and a video producer on board and shows kids how to use the equipment, but it doesn’t go near the Rez. So we’re launching a Native Music Rocks Educational Bus with the same technology. We’ll teach young Native musicians the things that the ‘regular’ people know. I have a mixed-blood son, and I want him to have the same access to state-of-the-art tools that the white kids have. With the power of Hard Rock International behind us, we can go where the Lennon Bus won’t go. We’ll use the bus as a launching pad to start Native Music Rocks programs in schools for Native kids. That excites me more than winning another Grammy. Giving back to my people is my number one job right now.”

Free is serious about wanting to help give other Native kids some of the advantages he had growing up. “My dad died before I was born, but my stepdad was in the Army and gave me the platform to experience life and music outside of the states. I didn’t grow up on the Rez. I saw Jimi Hendrix in Germany, along with Clapton and the Stones. When I visited Oklahoma, my father’s people kept me in tune with my Native side.

“I’ve been playing guitar since I saw Elvis and the Everly Brothers, mainly to get babes. I didn’t know it was possible to make a living playing music. I made my first guitar from a Cheer detergent box, using rubber bands for strings. When we moved back to the US, my uncle bought me an acoustic guitar. The first song I learned was ‘Secret Agent Man.’ I only took one day of lessons, ‘cause they wanted to teach me ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb.’ I wanted to play ‘Sunshine of Your Love.’ I sat by the record player and taught myself by playing along with Cream. I picked up block chords from hanging around other guitar players.”

Free also taught himself bass, Native flute, keyboards, drums, timbales, and harmonica. By the time he was a teenager, he was playing professionally in a rock band called Smokehouse. They got booked as an opening act on a monster tour with Kiss, REO Speedwagon, Rush, and Ted Nugent. When Kiss bass player Gene Simmons heard him play, he told Free to quit the band and come to LA. Simmons became Free’s manager, but he was often on the road, so Free had to hustle up his own gigs. “In 1984, Shalamar asked me to join them. I was into rock and didn’t know anything about R&B groups. I went to Tower Records and listened to one of their albums and hated it. Gene told me that if I wanted to be a rock god, I should join the band. He said it was a guarantee of instant stardom. [Shalamar] wanted someone who could play rock guitar and add a bit of Prince-like flavor to the group.”

Free stayed with Shalamar until 1990. He won a Grammy for “Don’t Get Stopped In Beverly Hills”, toured the world, and lived the life of a rock star. At one point, Prince asked Free to join a new band he was putting together called Mazarati, but he chose to stay with Shalamar. “After I quit Shalamar, I joined a band with Jean Beauvoir of the Plasmatics called Crown of Thorns, but grunge came in and bitch slapped us into oblivion.

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  Canku Ota is a free Newsletter celebrating Native America, its traditions and accomplishments . We do not provide subscriber or visitor names to anyone. Some articles presented in Canku Ota may contain copyright material. We have received appropriate permissions for republishing any articles. Material appearing here is distributed without profit or monetary gain to those who have expressed an interest. This is in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.  
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