In the thrall of the wood thrush

Loosed pine needles whirl a windy ballet just outside my fall window. And this fleeting, ultimately tiny event seems, suddenly, like a powerful epiphany.

Because in the room with me now is the soft, swirling sound of three women singing, chanting, praising, pleading, laughing, sometimes whooping in uncanny unison. They are the recorded voices of Ulali, the most-famous Native American a cappella trio you may think you’ve never heard of, but whom you’ve probably heard anyway.

And at the other end of the phone cupped to my ear is real-live singer Pura Fe (pronounced POORA FAY). She’s coming to me, tired and a little scattered, from a hotel lobby in Greensboro, the day after the close of the 2003 National Indian Education Association conference, which wrapped up there on Nov. 5.

Ulali performed and taught during the four-day event, which brings together Native leaders and educators from across the United States and Canada.

“It was pretty beautiful,” Pura Fe reveals.

Ulali joined the 34th-annual conference — held this year for the first time east of the Mississippi River — in hopes of “being able to break through some of the politics that hold our people … in such a bind,” the singer explains.

Because the group performs under the faith that music is a vehicle for change, Pura Fe adds, earnestly.

“That had better be true, or [else] we’re writin’ for nothing,” she muses. “If it isn’t, I know there’s a whole bunch of musicians that are being delusional.

“I imagine that a good part of us write to make people feel better, and to carry a message — to try to crack through the craziness.”

Common ground

Ulali also includes Pura Fe’s cousin, Jennifer Elizabeth Kreisberg, and old friend Soni Moreno Caballero. Pura Fe, a long-time resident of Robeson County in eastern North Carolina, shares Tuscarora lineage with Jennifer, who lives now in Connecticut. Soni, who claims Mayan, Apache and Yaqui heritage, is based in New York City.

But Ulali has always been about things shared — about unity — as Pura Fe often says.

“There’s a common ground always, somewhere,” she declares now. “And that’s what you touch on; that really is the message.

“There’s always space to respect each other’s differences.”

Ulali strives, as part of its musical mission, to teach both Native and non-indigenous people about Native culture. And yet cross-cultural enlightenment has little, in fact, to do with why a European-mutt white guy like me gets so weak-kneed from their music.

I listen to Ulali because I am, simply, enthralled by those igniting voices shooting their honeyed sparks across this continent’s sundry music traditions — from way-a-hay powwow vocalizing to staid choral harmonizing; from impassioned, politicized calls to action to sweltering gospel-style testimonials of unity.

At times, their sound — flushed out by rattles, shakers and other light percussion — seems as if it must just be seeping through these singers’ feet. It’s not even as if it’s growing up from there, but instead, as if it has always been there, right where these three women stand.

“To our elders, who teach us of our creation, and our past,” begins the speaking voice on the much-anthologized “Ancestor Song,” amid a backdrop of powwow chant. “So we may preserve Mother Earth for ancestors yet to come.

“We are the land.”

In a sense, Ulali’s music is as American as, well, before apple pie. The easy temptation is to call their sound timeless and be done with it — except that nudges way too close to suggesting Ulali may be, well, quaint.

Uh-uh.

When these three unalloyed voices entwine, it’s as if some dizzy fool with a paintbrush has swashed shades of ocean-sunset orange, red and purple; hues of fall-maple gold; hints of the heartbreak-blue preceding a heartland storm; smears of eddying, salt-wash aqua; and tints of mountain evergreen, all through your ears — you become drunk on some mysterious, living tonic. For days afterward, Q-tip cleanings will raise bits of trees and wind. Drops of cool water. Sky.

So an epiphany with dancing pine needles isn’t really so outrageous, is it?

Uncommon goals

Ulali’s history is littered with Impressive Performances and Important Events — the televised Olympics ceremonies in Atlanta (1996) and in Salt Lake City (2002); the Smithsonian Folkways 50th Anniversary Gala at Carnegie Hall (1997); the Jazz & Heritage Festival in New Orleans; the World of Music, Arts and Dance fest (including that one Toronto WOMAD early in the band’s career, “where the people just went ape-nuts,” Pura Fe recalls).

And, always, more: an indigenous-music fest in Fiji this year, and a sacred-music celebration in Morocco.

Plus, those year-in-year-out Native American powwows — on reservation lands, and on county fairgrounds, in fluorescent-bulb-humming high-school gyms, in roped-off shopping-center parking lots, wherever — all across this country.

Since formally launching themselves as Ulali in 1994, the group has appeared on one you-gotta-have-it music compilation after another, and in TV documentaries (the Sundance Channel’s recent Keeping Time: New Music From America’s Roots I, for instance) and on movie soundtracks (the indelible 1998 Sundance Film Festival winner Smoke Signals).

Ulali’s debut, Mahk Jchi (Original Vision, 1994; pronounced MOCK CHEE), still remains its only release; subsequent recording has been mired in big-label-contract breaks and downsizing debacles.

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