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As far as the guardians of cool might be concerned, Robert Mirabal has a couple of things working against him: First, his most recognizable accomplishment is his inclusion in John Tesh's One World video for the Public Broadcasting System, a colorful and accidentally amusing piece of footage that finds him dancing and playing a flute on a desert mesa while Teshy pounds away on the keys with that grin on his face. Second, even though they touch on everything from traditional native music to hip-hop and even guitar-infused rock and roll, his six recordings are most likely to be filed away in the new-age bins at the neighborhood record store. Definitely not cool.
Mirabal's not worried.
"They can call it whatever they want," he says. "My music is much older than new age. We all need labels. So I've decided I'll settle for Alter-Native."
Born in Taos Pueblo, the oldest continuously inhabited native community in North America, Mirabal is accustomed to living his life and pursuing his art in a way that falls squarely outside of mainstream conceptions of normal -- or cool. He grew up speaking the Tiwa language and learning the ancestral stories and traditions of his culture; while American boys his age were first getting turned on to Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, Mirabal was drawing artistic inspiration from the composer next door, the drum-maker across the way, the ritual dancers who were everywhere.
"What's considered artistic ability is just part of our everyday life," he says. "It's just what we do. We're fortunate at Taos, because the majority of our money comes from tourism -- we get to do what we love and sell our art to the world, the country."
Mirabal learned drumming early, and grasped the basics of music in "a tiny little government school on the reservation." At fifteen, he caught his first glimpse of a handmade flute at a powwow. Today, Mirabal's own creations have toured museums (a few remain on permanent display in the Smithsonian), and he's been compared to traditional native flutist R. Carlos Nakai and called a modern-day Kokopelli.
Taos Tales is Mirabal's newest release on the Boulder-based Silver Wave Records -- he's released four others with the label, and Mirabal, with Warner Western. With titles like "Painted Caves," "Hunting Party" and "Day of the Dead," the thirteen-track CD is at times a wholly modern affair, with an expansive sound that employs guitar, upright bass, violin, cello and flute, as well as world beats, hip-hop dance rhythms and rock-and-roll song structures. At other times, the release is composed not so much of "songs" but of "talking stories," as Mirabal calls them, oral traditions from Taos Pueblo sung in both Tiwa and English. "Ee-You-Oo" combines both realms -- Tiwa chants and drums meet a roving violin and a melodic, rockish guitar.
This year, Amazon.com named Mirabal "Native Artist of the Year," an award based on Internet sales of Taos Tales. Yet it's an honor he seems wary of. Native performers, he contends, are often charged with the responsibility of representing all American-Indian people, a demographic that varies dramatically from region to region, tribe to tribe. So while he's happy to expose new audiences to native tradition and song, Mirabal's reluctant to become a spokesperson for native people.
"My music is individual," he says. "It's for the world. You birth songs, and you birth different things. My culture and my religion stays here [Taos Pueblo]. I'm Taos Pueblo, but I'm also a musician from America. I do make a conscious effort toward the re-establishment and strength of my cultural identity, but when people ask me 'Are you a role model?' it's hard for me to take that stance. I'm just still trying to figure out what's out there. I'm just lucky to be alive. I don't like to be preached to, and I don't want to be a preacher."
Mirabal has tried his hand at teaching, though, serving as both an artist-in-residence at Dartmouth College and lecturer at Colorado College. Though he describes his own educational experience as "very, very bad -- I barely made it out," he's taught ecology, multiculturalism and native traditions.
"There's a different way that native people have grown up," he says. "Teachers of multiculturalism tend to lump everything together. In a certain way, we've fallen through the cracks.
"What I do, all of it, it's for education," he continues. "Within my show, I try to offer as much as I can. I want to let people know about things I grew up with, try to be as pro as I can. Mostly I want the audiences not to feel guilty. I've heard other native performers put down the audience, they say 'The white culture this,' 'The white culture that.' You can't bring up history, or if you do bring it up, you have to have some kind of cure or solution. Sometimes it's a song or a conversational piece, or just an artistic vibe."
When John Tesh invited Mirabal to round out the "native" quotient in his ambitious One World project (wherein the large-headed musician endeavored to include musical styles and players from around the world on an album and corresponding video epic), he wasn't doing Mirabal the kindness of providing him with a first break. That came years before, when Mirabal first began receiving grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Japanese Foundation. Later, he penned "Land," a score composed for and performed by Eiko and Koma, a famous Japanese dance duo, which won the New York Dance and Performer's "Bessie" award. He was later asked to provide commentary to the PBS documentary Spirit: A Journey in Dance, Drums and Song, which inspired a touring theatrical production with Mirabal as the featured performer. In that production and during his solo tours, Mirabal has become known as a live performer who uses visual as well as musical elements to create a sensory experience for the audience. Dancers in traditional costume often join him on stage, and he designs lighting and sets to reflect the aesthetic of the sounds. Yet despite the critical accolades he's received over the years, he concedes it was probably Teshy who brought a broader audience to his performances.