Navajo Music for Ceremonial and Poplular Uses

Navajo music is very important to the religion and secular culture of the Navajo People. The Navajo, or Dineh (The People) as they call themselves, live on their ancestral lands. 300,000 Navajo live on 14 million acres, an area larger than several states. Although the U.S. government made many attempts to wipe out the Navajo music, language, religion, and culture, the Navajo have resisted assimilation and today are actually increasing in the knowledge and practice of their own culture.

Navajo music is performed during ceremonies and rituals. There is also a “popular” music. The sacred music is performed in ceremonies given by the Holy Ones and they teach lessons, history, origins, and the personal responsibilities for human beings in the world. They can last for a few hours or up to nine days and are somewhat like plays.

The ceremonies and the sacred Navajo music are not to be made public, or recorded, filmed, or written down. Navajo music is also used for the Peyote Songs that are part of the rituals of the Native American Church which came to the northern part of the Navajo Nation around 1936. These songs are vocals accompanied by rattle and water drum.

Song and dance ceremonies are called “ways”, for example, “the Healing Way.” Navajo music is always vocal and may be accompanied be drums, drumsticks, rattles, rasp, flute, whistle, and bullroar. The bullroar or bullroar-er is a slit board attached to a cord and swung around in the air to create a deep, vibrating, whrrrr like sound.

The intention of all ceremonies and shorter prayers is to create or restore harmony, balance, good health, and serenity. As of 1982 there were 1000 Singers qualified to perform ceremonials and prayers.

The longer ceremonies have sand painting and masked dancers. Balance is restored between good and evil, positive and negative forces. Many people have noted a resemblance between Navajo spirituality and Taoism.

Deities and natural forces are called upon. The lyrics in Navajo music may last over an hour and are sung in groups. The song cycles contain narrative epics, knowledge about various phenomena, and morality. They often tell of the beginning of the world and the origins of the Navajo. Changing Woman, the main deity is immortal. She grows old in the winter and young in spring.

“Popular” music has a highly active melodic motion with wide leaps between pitches. Melody usually ranges an octave to an octave and a half. Today, in addition to the “traditional” popular music, Navajo musicians have melded their music with rock, country-western, and especially reggae.

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