Blues Power in the Tuscarora Homeland: The Music of Pura Fe
Troutman, John W., Southern Cultures
his late April 2007 day marked the nicest that New Yorkers had yet experienced in the year. Pura Fe and her accompanist, Danny Godinez, were rehearsing on a bench in Central Park, reveling in the deep luster of the Sunday afternoon sky. Anyone from Seattle knows not to take such days for granted, and Pura Fe, who had recently relocated there from North Carolina, was no exception. After practicing for a while and soaking in the sun and the smiles of New Yorkers beaming from its warmth, she and Danny gathered more equipment from their rooms in the Excelsior Hotel and walked across the street to the main entrance of the Museum of Natural History.
The welcome at the museum was not quite as they had anticipated--camera crews lined the marble steps and security guards prodded through the contents of their three guitar cases and other equipment bags. After the search the guards informed them that they would have to exit the building and enter through the staff entrance, where another cadre of guards awaited them. The added security was due to an appearance by Mayor Michael Bloomberg who, like Pura Fe, had received an invitation to participate in the museum's Earth Day celebration.
To complicate matters, by soundcheck it was immediately apparent that the museum staff had failed to provide the equipment that Pura Fe had requested, which forced them to scramble until show time to find the appropriate microphones and cables. Even after they got underway that afternoon, the PA system seemed to cooperate only grudgingly. Of course, Pura Fe had experienced such issues before, and she overcame the technical difficulties with the ease and seeming nonchalance that only a seasoned professional could muster.
Pura Fe Crescioni, a Tuscarora musician, has toured the world for over two decades--since 1987 with the Native a cappella trio she founded, "Ulali," and for the past few years as a solo artist. Pura Fe has shared the stage with such artists as Buffy Saint Marie, Robbie Robertson, Neil Young, and Bonnie Raitt; she has sung with the Mercer Ellington Orchestra, appeared on Jay Leno's "The Tonight Show," and joined the roster of artists on the Durham-based Music Maker Relief Foundation record label. (She has also served on the non-profit label's advisory board with B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend, and one of her greatest supporters, Taj Mahal). The soundtrack to the film Smoke Signals, based on the short stories of Sherman Alexie (Spokane/Coeur d'Alene), features her music, as do countless documentaries. She was voted "Best Female Artist" at the 2006 Native American Music Awards and performed at the grand opening of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian.
While Pura Fe has lived a remarkable life on the road and has earned critical praise around the globe, the one place she can always call home--the old Tuscarora homelands of North Carolina--anchors her. This becomes immediately clear in her performances and in conversations with her, and the centrality of those homelands in her life and art reflects both her values as a Tuscarora woman and her inheritance, as a blues woman, of musical traditions shaped by the black, white, and Native peoples who have lived there. Indeed, her ancestry in many ways reflects the multicultural heritage of southern music. By considering the histories of her life, of her people, and of American music, we can begin to understand how in her music those histories engage one another in revelatory fashion.
Music is in Pura Fe's genes. Her mother, Nanice Monk Lund, is a trained opera singer who routinely brought Pura Fe to her own rehearsals and performances, including a stint with Duke Ellington's Orchestra for his Sacred Concert Series. On the afternoon of Pura Fe's New York performance, Nanice regaled her lunchmates with stories from the road with Duke's band, including one in which, shortly before a show, some of the musicians dressed in white robes and nearly scared to death their unsuspecting bandmates--a remarkably devilish prank played before a show in Mississippi in the 1960s, when fear of the Klan and racial violence permeated the region for people of color. …