No artist springs fully formed into the world. Being creative is a kinetic state, shifting constantly, and not always in linear development. Few singer-songwriters reveal this inner prism more clearly than Pura Fé.
Describing herself as an “heir to the Tuscarora Indian Nation,” Fé has long looked to her ancestors’ music to color her compositional palette. After all, she claims eight generations of Tuscarora singers on her mother’s side. You could say her songs can be understood partly by how much each one is influenced by Native American traditions.
The key here is “how much.” A host of other types of sound shape Fé’s output, in changing ratios at any given time. Expect to hear shades of Appalachian folk, traditional blues, jazz, soul, and even a touch of rock and roll. But that Native American heart is never completely hidden.
The track “Borders,” from the 2009 album Full Moon Rising is a good starting point for getting to know the complexities of Pura Fé. It’s interesting to consider the interplay of style and content in this song. The lyrics are a plea for unity among Native American groups. The song’s musical style is flat-out funk.
A folkier sound carries the song “Let Heaven Show” from 2007 album Hold the Rain. And while acoustic six-string guitars have been in pretty much everybody’s music for a long time, their presence here conjures up more Anglo-Appalachian influence than pure First Nations.
The lyrics overflow with deep-seated peace and appreciation of the world, not the anger and frustration found in a track like “Still You Take,” about human greed that destroys both the earth and our fellow creatures, not to mention ourselves. The poet’s range of expression is as wide as her musical taste.
Even after hearing a few diverse songs, don’t think you can guess what Fé will offer next. Her 2013 album, Caution to the Wind, at first seems like it’s by an entirely different artist with the same name. The opening track, “I Want to Be with You,” could be a ʼ70s pop tune with soul-inspired harmonies and cliched imagery that begins “Ever try to catch a falling star?” But it’s unmistakably Fé’s voice. And isn’t that a Native American wooden flute I hear?
By track 3 of Caution to the Wind, there’s no question who’s writing these songs. The social conscience returns and the romanticism steps aside. “Bye Bye Missy Blues (for Little Mommy),” while its jazz fusion sound may bring to mind Steely Dan, deals with the painful issue of teen suicide: “Missy lost her life down by the railroad tracks. / She couldn’t take it.”
And then, in “Great Grandpa’s Banjo,” yet another aspect of Fé’s musical persona steps into the light. No accompaniment besides rattles supports the tight overdubbing of her voice in this traditional-style song.
It’s worth noting here that Fé is not always a solo act. She also performs and records Native American-influenced songs with a group called The Ulali Project, an all-female “First Nations quartet,” as they bill themselves. There’s no intermixing of styles, and the traditional drums and garb keep the focus away from jazz or pop. The excellent singers blend well together and really sell their traditional roots as a vibrant musical form.
Fé’s most recent solo album, from 2015, is Sacred Seed on Nueva Onda records, produced by Mathis Haug. It includes songs in English, Tuscarora, and Tutelo. (Tutelo is in the Siouan family of Native languages, whereas Tuscarora is related to Iroquois. Both peoples consider North Carolina home.)
She used Tutelo for the song “Mohomoneh,” which is a prayer of gratitude to Mother Earth.
One of Fé’s self-proclaimed goals in music-making has been to explore “the connection between Native music and the African-American primal art form.” Maybe that strikes you as a gimmick, or as too New Age-y to bear. But give it a chance. Here’s the title track of Sacred Seed. The soul-inspired phrasing is there, but with a different approach to the overall sound. It combines traditional Native percussion with piano and the twanging bass of bluesy jazz. All this is in service of socially conscious lyrics:
Part of Fé’s identity as a Native American is clearly bound up with her maternal musical line and the important role of women in First Nations society. A multitude of female voices slide in close harmony against a bowed upright bass in “Woman’s Shuffle,” with breathtaking results. Fé describes what they’re singing as “vocables” rather than language, but the sense of empowerment is unmistakable. She calls the style “old Southern Indian soul.”
Pura Fé is impossible to categorize. She’s the kind of artist who keeps learning and therefore keeps changing. As her philosophy deepens, the wisdom she shares gives the devoted listener greater strength. There is no end to this process of growth. As she puts it in her song “True Freedom,”
Who are we? Powerful beyond measure.
Who are we? Power of the Creator.
This article was first published in Issue 33.