Interview: Pura Fé
Updated: Jul 11, 2021
Indigenous musician and rights campaigner Pura Fé sat down to speak with us about her music, her days touring festivals, indigenous communities and the challenges they face, as well as the successes they have achieved
“When you have many lineages, all that stuff is alive, it’s in you, it’s in your veins, you know? The way your hair curls, it’s in your thought, it’s what you’re made of, your memory. So, all of that, it’s old, it goes back to the beginning of everything. So, whatever codes are in you usually come out.
Regular readers on our site might have observed that we typically do not review artists who have been born and raised in the United States or the United Kingdom. However, due to our immense curiosity in learning more about and understanding other cultures, specifically music cultures, we were keen to get an insight into the Native American experience directly from a musician whose work we both very much admire and enjoy. An heir to the Tuscarora Indian Nation, and also of Taíno descent, singer-songwriter extraordinaire Pura Fé certainly fit the bill. Having had a varied career performing both in the hand-drumming group Ulali and as a solo artist across a range of genres, Fé has had a glittering career performing across the world in both the mainstream and native music arenas. Such performance highlights included two stints at WOMAD and even playing for the Dalai Lama at the Hollywood Bowl.
Fé was destined for a career in music as she came from a musical matriarchal family, many of whom were singers. Her grandmother recounted to her tales about her sisters who sung gospel and blues music as well as a what are known as "vocables" as they would "footstomp" on their porch. Meanwhile, her aunts, Paula and Misha, were also singers, whilst her mother was an opera singer who sang for the Duke Ellington orchestra. She recalls getting to know Ellington before he passed away in 1974 as her mother had a very close relationship with his sister, Ruth Ellington. Fé was put in show business by her mother at a young age, performing in a variety of commercials and Broadway shows; she even trained with the American Ballet Theatre in New York City. She then went onto study at Lincoln Square Academy, whose alumni include the likes of Ben Stiller and a former close friend of Fé, singer Irene Cara, before dropping out. Though Fé regrets this, it inadvertently led to a key a step in her becoming the artist she is today. She became a waitress at a New York City bar named Max's Kansas City, a favoured haunt of singers and bands such as David Bowie, Talking Heads, and Blondie. It was there where she took to the stage alongside the musical acts as a backing singer. This gave her the confidence to form her own music group with other creatives she had met at the "Indian centre".
Fé had some commercial success within the mainstream music market through some of her earlier albums, but it is her work within the global native community which form the backbone of her oeuvre. There is a consciousness to Fé’s music which is undeniable. Her plans to make a canoe music album demonstrate this, as she intends to honour the traditions of her ancestors, doing so with an eagerness for authenticity. She aims to bring together what she calls the ‘wampum coast’, her nickname for the region of the East Coast of the United States where wampum shells are used to preserve their laws and traditions. Fé often seems caught up in the wonder of possibility, with her fingers in many pies at the same time. Yet, it seems to us that her work within the native music scene is what means the most to her. Within her proposed canoe music album she is toying with the idea of including her blanket dance project as well. Though she doesn’t see herself as a preserver of culture, the idea for this project came from seeing native women from the East Coast dancing the blanket dance in the wrong context. “They bring it to the powwows, and they’re doing this dance to these Plains Indian war dance songs, and I can’t watch! It just drives me crazy!” Fé continues, “It just doesn’t work as it’s kind of hokey, and I was like 'no, we have to make a drum album for these women to honour them and make this right'". These ambitions correlate with her view that art is not a luxury, rather it is a "complete necessity". In an impassioned manner, Fé elaborated, “it’s food. It’s life. So, it’s like when people pass away, we need music, we need these things to help us, we need to cross people over, we need to help those that are in grief and pain, we need music. For the States, it’s just a commodity.”
The relationship between Fé, drums, and women honouring traditions of the past goes all the way back to 1987, when she formed the magnificent hand-drumming group Ulali. Sadly, due to logistical difficulties of living too far away from one another, the band is currently on hiatus. Yet, Ulali have certainly left a legacy and an impression on many of those in the audiences of their gigs. “A lot of places we would go, they would see these three Indian girls with these hand-drums and they were like rolling their eyes. We would get up on stage and then all these 5,000 ancestors from the grave would just come on up and [she roars] – they were like ‘what the hell, what just happened?!’ So we gained a lot of respect.” The a cappella style of the group is somewhat unique due to the intensity of the singing. There was a huge element of catharsis in their performances which they were aware of. They often utilised their concerts almost as a form of meditation in which they were able to totally disconnect from trivial distractions and disturbances and instead, harness their emotions and even the depths of their souls. She recounts that sometimes the band would joke amongst themselves before their set “‘shall we blast them away first or take them on a journey?’”. Fé explains that the process was very healing in resolving occasional animosities that used to occur amongst the group, “When it was done, no matter what we were going through before we got on that stage, and sometimes there were some almost knock down fights, we would get up from that stage and everything was fine.”
The group in its initial incarnation was made up of four men and three women. At this stage in their career they were invited to play at WOMAD in Toronto, in which the group took audiences by storm, selling out all of their cassettes in less than an hour. She fondly reminisced, “It was beautiful, no one had ever heard anything like us, we were the first of our kind. People were very hungry.” One might be curious to know why this fairly esoteric music resonated with this Canadian audience and many others across the globe, so she delineated for us, “many people can relate, they can feel a piece of them in it.” When invited back to the Seattle version of Peter Gabriel’s world-renowned festival, a rather beautiful occurrence took place. Ulali got to share the stage with some drummers and a kalimba player from Africa. This was no ordinary kalimba due to its hefty size. “He was going crazy on it, and he played this song that matched exactly with one of our songs, and I walked right over to him and started singing and the girls came over and they started singing. The guy organising it said 'you two groups are together', he kept pairing all these people together. It is just so beautiful to be a part of stuff like that.”
Finding commonalities between peoples from different cultures has been a theme throughout Fé’s international festival appearances. It would be impossible to pick a favourite tale from the many she regaled us with. One of the ones we particularly loved included her reuniting with her father at a festival in Corsica, where she observed the similarities between a Bulgarian Women’s Singing Choir’s song and the melody of a Lakota song. Despite no common language the group managed to communicate this wonderful coincidence in a rather ‘pantomime’ fashion and caught the attention of all of the artists in the dinner tent who ran over to listen to their improvised collaboration.
In Switzerland she describes “bond[ing] with a pigmy woman” in a rather powerful manner. “It was amazing because it was all eyes and that was all we could talk with. There is so much emotion and heart, it was like ‘I am going to hug you now!’” Though Fé communicates her feelings so often through her music, there is something incredibly poetic about the silent, non-verbal communication that can, in some senses, speak louder than words. As a woman with a deep interest in understanding humanity’s similarities and differences, particularly when that relates to other indigenous groups, it is no surprise to hear that in these moments of connection, much intrigue runs through her mind. On the same trip, she met many yodelling groups and couldn’t help but feel fascinated by them. “They were mostly men and they were tall, I was looking at their features and they had this gold earring with the snakes and that means something to me too in my part of the world. Their hair was so black and I start asking questions. It was like ‘who are you?’ I need to know who you are to understand how it might relate to me. I want to know how long ago our connection is - Do I recognise you? Do you recognise me? ….Who are you related to? Who are your ancestors? How do we fit together?’” Even if no conclusions are found, there is great value in the search for shared heritage and traditions with those that, on the surface, seem to have no obvious connection. She rather beautifully puts it, “I feel proud to be human and proud to be meeting relatives from all over. That is what it is.”
As a key player in the global Indigenous music scene, Fé recognises that the struggle that indigenous communities face are the same regardless of their location. “When everyone sits together, the message is the same. Almost word for word, and the first thing we all talk about is the environment, our earth. Priorities, values, value systems in the world that need to change.” She goes on, “Some more than others know our creation stories, and all that goes on with us today, what we face today and what we faced long ago, all of this fills our music. So, our message is huge, and it’s strong, and it’s old, and it’s new, so it’s like our music means a lot. It’s not entertainment, it’s ancestral.” Climate issues are of course dear to her heart, and in some respects Fé is not merely a musician but also, despite her dislike for the term, an activist due to her work on the ground that she does surrounding this ever-present problem the world continues to face. She ruefully points out, “It is the indigenous people that are on the front lines, of course, as it is their lands that are being encroached upon.”
As populist leaders have seen a rise to power across the globe in the past decade in some of the world’s major powers, for example, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Donald Trump in the USA, and Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico, all of whom have engaged in both rhetoric and policy decisions that will send shivers down the spine of their nations’ indigenous communities, it can appear as though respect for indigenous rights has dramatically declined. Fé, however, sees this as a simplistic narrative and looks back to history as a reference point. “It’s been going on for 500+ years. It has not changed. It’s the same and we’re dealing with having to face how much we need to take care of internal problems… every day more stuff just keeps getting thrown on every indigenous community everywhere. ‘Oh, they’re rising, let’s throw some mess in there!’ It never stopped.” She remains optimistic about the growing interconnectedness of global indigenous groups, thanks in part to technology, but also due to increasing consciousness of the movement not just in the United States but across the variety of indigenous communities around the world. Music plays a huge role in this, as stars such as Sámi artist Mari Boine, deceased Aboriginal legend Gurrumul and Afro-Venezuelan roots musician Betsayda Machado have drawn in huge crowds across the globe, all proudly flying the indigenous flag.
On a personal level, Fé has experienced and witnessed first-hand examples of discrimination that have acted as a stumbling block for Native Americans in the mainstream music scene. She referred to her aunt Paula and mother being denied opportunities. “They were born in the wrong time… but my aunties would have been through the ceiling. It was not sexism, it was racism.” This is why there is such value in the development of native media streams, be it through television, radio, or online, in which there is opportunity for appreciation of talented artists like herself without the same bigotry. Within their own platforms and networks, there are also a range of thriving music societies specifically for natives, for example, Fé mentions a blues society, an opera group, and even a fiddle-playing group. Nowadays, Fé feels like she wants to use her immense experience in music to motivate native women and kids to hand-drum, but being so far away from her community this has not proved easy during the pandemic.
Looking forward to the future, Fé doesn’t just intend to focus on the canoe song album. A lover of all types of music, Fé sees these coming years as her final opportunity to fulfil her dream of making a funk album. “I cannot wait, I am so frustrated. I want to be in the studio with all of my funkiest of musician buddies!” she proclaimed. She has dreams of collaborating with a variety of musicians that she admires, particularly Navajo trumpeter Delbert Anderson whose horn skills she waxed lyrical about. Her appreciation of the genre came from a young age listening to Motown records, referencing the likes of Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder. Her musical heroes were not just within the soul and funk genres however. Indigenous folk star Buffy Saint-Marie was a key formative influence, as was fusion musician Frank Zappa. Fé even mentions a love of flamenco before exclaiming “I love everything, man!”
Away from music, Fé collaborated on a TV project with British writer Clive Bradley, and her time in the writers’ room was crucial to aid the team tell the story of Native women in North America. She is also currently working with indigenous director Marie Clements on a film called Reclaim My Skin. Though she is deeply honoured to be involved with such a unique project showcasing female voices through their poetry, artwork and other creative endeavours, ultimately her passion remains to be one thing - music. For Fé, although she is an intellect whose understanding of the world is a deeply engaging one to listen to, perhaps nothing she says can match the universality of what she is able to communicate through the power of song. She poetically puts it, “Music is like breath. It’s life. And so we all breathe together and its connection it’s like prayer. For me that’s what it is.”