Although she was originally born and raised in New York City, Pura Fé has chosen to lay her guitars in a suburban house in Durham, North Carolina. Today, she wouldn’t live anywhere else:
“I wanted to feel close to my culture, my tradition, my language. I wanted to feel at home, among the members of my community.”
Pura Fé, an heir to the Tuscarora Indian Nation, is an artist, an activist, and much more. She still draws a large part of her inspiration from her rich First Nation heritage when she writes about today’s problems.
The “sacred seed” that gave its title to this new album is as much about First Nation legends as it is about Monsanto and GMOs.
“I’m often labeled as an activist. In fact, I place myself in the time-honored perspective of someone who accepts to bear the responsibilities inherited from my ancestors. It urges me to fight for the rights of indigenous people and denounce the threats to the environment, starting with oil and shale gas corporations.”
Her musical journey, running the gamut from folk to mainstream through an artful use of the blues, reflects the concerns of an artist who grew up in the Motown era, while citing Buffy Sainte-Marie, Charley Patton and Joni Mitchell as her true mentors. And, more widely, “traditional music from all over the world, wherever the spirit is connected to our roots.”
Saying that Pura Fé was brought up in a musical environment is an understatement. On her maternal side, she claims no less than eight generations of Tuscarora singers. Her mother, gifted with a Wagnerian operatic voice, was the featured vocalist in several of Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts. “She would have deserved to be heard all over the world, but those were difficult times for a woman of color,” regrets Pura Fé whose father, born in Puerto Rico, boasted First Nation and Corsican blood. As a teenager in New York City, failing to find her place in the school system of the metropolis, she delved into her parents’ Native music record collection and took part in First Nation pow wows:
“I found myself the day I was able to reconnect with my indigenous roots.”
Initially working as a background singer, in the studio as well as in Broadway musicals, she eventually felt the need to express herself through her own songs. “It came out just like that, all of a sudden!” she recalls. This outburst took the name of Ulali in 1987. This singing trio, formed with Soni Moreno and Jennifer Kreisberg, rapidly made waves with its bluesy Native American sounds. The connection between Native music and the African-American primal art form, abundantly explored by one of Pura Fé’s most ardent fans, Taj Mahal, then became her trademark as she started her solo career with the help of the Music Maker Relief Foundation.
“There have been many interactions between Native Americans and African-Americans since slavery. People don’t always know it, but Native peoples have played a major role in the development of American music, whether it’s jazz, blues or rock’n’roll.”
When she’s not touring or fighting for civil rights, Pura Fé sings her Tuscarora blues songs at home, to the sound of her lap-steel guitar.
Mathis Haug, who produced the “Sacred Seed” album at the request of Nueva Onda Records, has chosen to capture those home sounds live, using demos made by Pura Fé with percussion and a looping machine. Mathis has chosen to take her through new roads that cross well-trodden paths, as he explains: “Very few people realize that the blues pulse comes from First Nation drums. Particularly the shuffle, a rhythm you can easily hear in Pura Fé’s drumming style. Not a specialist of First Nation music myself, I conceived this album as a door to that culture. I wanted to show the various influences First Nation music had on styles that are well-known in Europe: jazz with “In a Sentimental Mood,” blues with “Idle No More,” soul with “Hiyo Stireh.””
The project took place far from North Carolina, in Southern France where the singer has always felt at home, a consequence of Corsican ancestry and of the warm welcome she’s always met there. Recording in a traditional mas in the Gard, Pura Fé spent a whole week polishing her music with Mathis (guitars and banjo), Stéphan Notari (piano and percussion), and Eric Longsworth (cello). A scarce musical scenery that allowed the singer to concentrate on her amazing vocal qualities. “Mathis asked me not to play the guitar, she remembers. So I said, OK! It actually made it easier for me. On stage, it will allow me to stand up and connect with the audience in a way I simply couldn’t do with a lap-steel.”
Written in English, Tuscarora, and Tutelo, the songs that make up “Sacred Seed” are mostly original compositions, with the addition of two classics. Pura Fé, although she invokes her ancestors (“My People My Land”), far outgrows folk and blues customs through her progressive use of instruments such as the cello. Her desire to open news doors also appears in her renditions of classics such as Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood” and Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky.” “I urged Pura Fé to add her beautiful traditional chants to Celtic sounds (“River People”), and even a Neil Young-styled rocker (“Woman’s Shuffle”). We also decided to use a soft sacred hymn as an opener (“Mohomeneh”),” recounts Mathis Haug. At the end of the day, Sacred Seed is a vocal masterpiece, Pura Fé being responsible for the all of the rich harmonies heard on the album.
“Mathis helped me come out of my shell and made me do things I never knew I could,” she volunteers. This may well be the reason why this album is so much like her, both intimate and daring. Both feet solidly planted in the ground, fist raised up high, Pura Fé delivers a strong message to today’s heirs of the First Nations:
“Our children are willing to fight for the survival of their culture. It is our duty to place that responsibility into their hands.”