New Recording Spotlights Chickasaw History And Culture
Chickasaw composer Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate gets philosophical when he talks about his forebears.
“My ancestors walked 800 miles in mud so that I could live and express what they did in symphonic music,” said Tate, a citizen of Chickasaw Nation. “It’s really quite intense when I think about the history that I’m attached to.”
Tate gave voice to that history in his large-scale musical-theatrical work Lowak Shoppala’ Fire and Light. Now a recording of the piece has been released on the Azica label, featuring performances by the Nashville String Machine, the Chickasaw Nation Children’s Chorus, the Chickasaw Nation Dance Troupe, vocal soloists and narrators.
The son of a Chickasaw father and a Manx-Irish mother, Tate says Lowak Shoppala’ Fire and Light is an expression of both sides of his background.
“This was heavily influenced by Riverdance,” Tate said. “Riverdance blew my mind when it came out. What I loved about Riverdance so much is that it’s just literally separate focused scenes based on Irish history and culture. And I just was like, you know, I want to do the exact same thing.”
Chickasaw poet Linda Hogan wrote the libretto for Lowak Shoppala’ Fire and Light, which unfolds in episodes drawn from Chickasaw lore. Those episodes run the historical gamut, from the ancient legend of the sacred fire to the sad story of the Removal of the Chickasaws from the Southeastern U. S. to Oklahoma in the 1830s. Tate summarizes the stories in our interview, above.
In live performance, Lowak Shoppala’ Fire and Light is as much a feast for the eyes as for the ears. Music, spoken word and singing join with slides of original artwork projected on screen, traditional Chickasaw dances and costumes designed by Chickasaw textile designer Margaret Roach Wheeler and closely resembling historical Chickasaw dress.
One of few works that present elements of Native American culture in a Western classical music context, Lowak Shoppala’ Fire and Light is a conversation between the European and Native American traditions and brings seemingly disparate cultural elements into harmony.
“I love the fact that I’m a Chickasaw man and I love the fact that I’m a classically trained musician,” Tate said, “and all of that comes together very, very naturally.”
Transcript of interview:
Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate: My ancestors walked 800 miles in mud so that I could live and express what they did in symphonic music really. It’s really quite intense when I think about the history that I’m attached to.
Jennifer Hambrick: I’m Jennifer Hambrick, midday host of WOSU Public Media’s Classical 101 in Columbus. I’m speaking with Chickasaw composer Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate about his musical-theatrical work Lowak Shoppala’ Fire and Light. Tate created the work in collaboration with Chickasaw poet Linda Hogan and Chickasaw costume designer Margaret Roach Wheeler. Lowak Shoppala’ Fire and Light is a large-scale work that brings together music, dance, written word, spoken word, consumes and projected visuals. What was your inspiration for the piece?
JT: This was heavily influenced by Riverdance. I’m Chickasaw on my father’s side and I’m Manx Irish on my mother's side, so I’m also an Irishophile. I love Irish music. I was raised culturally Irish, but I feel a very good connection there. But Riverdance blew my mind when it came out. And when I was asked to compose this work from the American Composer’s Forum, I said, “I know exactly what I want to do. I want to do something very similar to Riverdance but with Chickasaw culture.” And what I loved about Riverdance so much is that It’s just literally separate focused scenes based on Irish history and culture. And I just was like, You know, I want to do the exact same thing. But Mine was going to be for full orchestra and chorus and soloist and actors and dance, like, traditional Chickasaw dance and modern dance. It just had everything under the sun in it. So originally it was a very, very large theatric work in eight sections. These are literally just separate scenes depicting different aspects of Chickasaw history and culture.
JH: Chickasaw poet Linda Hogan created the libretto on the inspiration of Chickasaw lore. What are the raw materials of the texts, and what are they about?
JT: The poem “Fire and Light” was already composed by Linda and I had read that, and I just felt that it just connected perfectly.
Voice of narrator: “The Creator and the grandmother of all life know how to give good gifts.”
JT: But to expand on the inside, a very large part of it that she composed new for it was the “Clans” scenes.
Voice of narrator: “Look how we make a path or those we care for.”
JT: … and also “Shell Shaker.” There’s also the “Removal” part. So we had her write more original material for this production within some of those movements.
JH: The central image in the libretto’s first poem, “Fire and Light,” is the sacred fire. Could you talk about the sacred fire in Chickasaw lore and what it represents?
JT: Absolutely. And as far as I know, most cultures around the world have a fire origin story, because fire it really our first technology, first human technology is fire, so it’s really, really critical. So we have one of those legends and that is in this work, and it’s called “Spider Brings Fire.” So, historically – we actually kept embers burning always within a container. And different villages had their own fire. And so if we ever moved, we would move that fire with us. And we kept those burning for thousands of years, literally. And there were many of those fires that made it in the Great Removal in the 1830s from the southeastern United States to Oklahoma. So that was just a really critical part of our culture.
JH: Are some of those embers or sons of those embers still burning today?
JH: If you would, talk us through the piece. The first scene is called “Fire and Light.”
JT: The first feature is the children’s chorus. And I meant that very much on purpose. This was all very thought out, about children. Children are children. They are who we are. They are our future. They are our legacy. And so the piece begins and ends with the children’s chorus, the Chickasaw Children’s Chorus. And so it kind of has an arc structure for the whole piece. It begins and ends with the exact same music, and that’s the children singing and Richard [Richard Ray Whitman] reciting the original “Fire and Light” poetry by Linda.
Voice of narrator: “The tribal fire, set down beside the night shine of animal eyes. The sounds of locusts.”
JT: So that bookends the work. And inside, like I said, there are different parts of history and culture, and they don’t go chronologically. So the next scene that they go into is a traditional doubleheader dance. And I just wanted to make sure that we had our traditional stomp dancers performing with full orchestra. And it’s almost like a little set of theme and variations because the dance repeats. They also come back at the end. I wanted this circle to happen with the material. But then the third movement is our shell shaker story, and this is the legend of how we received our turtle shells that create our fundamental percussive sound. And it’s really consistent around woodland Indians east of the Mississippi. There’s a lot of shell-shaking in our percussion. And so that’s, like, a really critical part of our culture. So that’s the shell shaker story. And then after that, it goes into the scene “Clans.” And “Clans” is really theatric.
Voice of narrator: “I stand in the green world, it’s strands woven in our breath.”
JT: Minko, who is the chief, calling the clans together for a council meeting. And then what happens is they all walk out slowly to this music. It’s literally like a historic fashion runway show. And that’s where Margaret Wheeler was able to really dive deeply into her knowledge of our ancient tribal outfits. And she recreated these very accurately. So you literally have this beautifully, almost slow-moving tableau-like presentation of our clans. The second act opens with an account of our removal, and so that’s a much more meditative, introspective piece – it’s a very sad and intense event, is that removal. I mean, my ancestors walked 800 miles in mud so that I could live and express what they did in symphonic music, really. It’s really quite intense when I think about the history that I’m attached to. So that was a real raw expression of that. And that was a very large modern dance feature. It’s almost like its own little ballet, basically, within the piece. And then after that, we immediately go into “Spider Brings Fire.”
Voice of narrator: “We respect the smallest, the least, like the spider in our own story, who carried the fire back to us, walked across water from the island with fire on its back and returned the sacred fire to its place, our center.”
JT: This is like the family story. And this also has accompanying slides that go with it that were created by Dustin Mater. And when it was performed with orchestra, they project the slides, so it’s like a cartoon book, basically. So then, the next movement is called “Hymn,” and this is a focus on a part of our history that not very many people are aware of. Indian Country has a real repertoire of church hymns. So we have bibles that are written in our language. Of course, now we have all these dictionaries, and a lot of these dictionaries were aided by a lot of the missionaries and church people that we integrated with. So there is a protestant hymn tradition that came in and mixed, and we created an entire new repertoire that is sung today in our language. This particular hymn, from what I understand the history of it, is that it was composed during the Removal from Mississippi to Oklahoma, and it’s just absolutely gorgeous. So that’s my very abstract vision of everybody congregating for the last time in Mississippi and preparing to go. And then that goes into the reprise of the doubleheader dance and then back into the reprise of “Fire and Light.” It was a really gratifying experience for me. I really felt like I was able to express all who I am as a mixed-blood Chickasaw and as a classically trained musician expressing my Chickasaw culture in Classical music.
JH: A recording of Jerod Impichchaachaaha Tate’s musical theatrical work Lowak Shoppala’ Fire and Light was released recently on the Azica label. I’m Jennifer Hambrick with WOSU Public Media’s Classical 101, in Columbus.