Recording Culture

Powwow Music and the Aboriginal Recording Industry on the Northern Plains

Recording Culture

Refiguring American Music

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Book Pages: 368 Illustrations: 18 photographs, 1 table Published: November 2012

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Music > Ethnomusicology, Native and Indigenous Studies

Recording is central to the musical lives of contemporary powwow singers yet, until now, their aesthetic practices when recording have been virtually ignored in the study of Native American expressive cultures. Recording Culture is an exploration of the Aboriginal music industry and the powwow social world that supports it. For twelve years, Christopher A. Scales attended powwows—large intertribal gatherings of Native American singer-drummers, dancers, and spectators—across the northern Plains. For part of that time, he worked as a sound engineer for Arbor Records, a large Aboriginal music label based in Winnipeg, Canada. Drawing on his ethnographic research at powwow grounds and in recording studios, Scales examines the ways that powwow drum groups have utilized recording technology in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the unique aesthetic principles of recorded powwow music, and the relationships between drum groups and the Native music labels and recording studios. Turning to "competition powwows," popular weekend-long singing and dancing contests, Scales analyzes their role in shaping the repertoire and aesthetics of drum groups in and out of the recording studio. He argues that the rise of competition powwows has been critical to the development of the powwow recording industry. Recording Culture includes a CD featuring powwow music composed by Gabriel Desrosiers and performed by the Northern Wind Singers.


“While the book makes a clear contribution to the interdisciplinary field of indigenous studies, the work will also be of interest to scholars in cultural anthropology, folklore studies, and the author’s field of ethnomusicology. With this new title, Duke University Press continues its work of publishing important scholarship in Native American and indigenous studies that advances the field while consciously reaching beyond it to make accessible contributions of interest to scholars working outside its boundaries.” — Jason Baird Jackson, Anthropological Quarterly

“This is an important, far-ranging discussion that deepens our understanding of powwow music in new and important ways.” — Clide Ellis, Journal of American Studies

Recording Culture will serve as an excellent resource for anyone who has never been to a powwow or who knows little about powwow dancing or music.” — Nicky Belle, ARSC Journal

“An ambitious book on an important and all- too- oft en underrepresented topic pertaining to the musicking of American Indians: the struggle over the control of representation via mechanically reproducible recordings.” — John Cline, American Indian Quarterly

“…A study that is both descriptive and theoretically sophisticated… Scales pulls off a remarkable study, one that every student of indigenous song traditions should read.” — Luke Eric Lassiter, Great Plains Quarterly

"This engaging book will be of interest to ethnomusicologists, anthropologists, non-specialists interested in powwow music and contemporary indigenous culture, and scholars in Native American and indigenous studies." — Kristina Jacobsen-Bia, Journal of Anthropological Research

“The book certainly has more interdisciplinary reach than is overtly written into it; those who work in performance studies and media studies will find much of interest, especially around issues related to the live and recorded production of music. Recording Culture is a welcome and significant contribution both to the study of Native and powwow music and performance, and to studies of the relationship between live and recorded musical expression.” — Thomas G. Porcello, Ethnomusicology Forum

“Christopher A. Scales’s Recording Culture is a groundbreaking book that seamlessly combines two research areas that have rarely been examined together and that few scholars have the capacity to write on: Aboriginal powwow music and the recording industry.” — Susan M. Taffe Reed, American Anthropologist

"Recording Culture and its accompanying CD are incomparable educational resources for the classroom.... Firmly grounded in ethnomusicological and community-based tradition, it is a flavorful description of the most widespread, colorful, living-breathing musical form known to indigenous peoples across Turtle Island." — T. Christopher Aplin, American Indian Culture and Research Journal

"Recording Culture is conceptually sophisticated in approach and ethnographically detailed in its content.... Recording Culture [is] a pivotal addition to the literature on the powwow, the most widespread and dynamic vehicle of indigenous expressive culture in native North America." — Grant Arndt, Ethnohistory

"All in all, this is a richly informative book, and one that lays the groundwork for what will hopefully be more studies documenting a particularly turbulent time in the music industry and the Native response of embracing technology and innovation." — Tara Browner, Ethnomusicology

"This is a fascinating study, at once deeply historical and thoroughly contemporary. Through his detailed exploration of the shifting ethics and aesthetics of powwow performance, Christopher A. Scales insightfully shows us how the powwow has always been a contemporary practice of identity negotiation." — David W. Samuels, author of Putting a Song on Top of It: Expression and Identity on the San Carlos Apache Reservation

"Recording Culture is an exceptional contribution to knowledge about contemporary Native American cultural initiatives. Within studies of powwow music, it is unique in its focus on aspects of CD production and issues related to the commodification of Native culture. It also provides original insights into matters such as the subtleties of drum beats, the evolving distinctions between song forms, and the criteria for judging powwow music. Christopher A. Scales's experience as a producer, as well as an ethnomusicologist, is particularly significant, since the material that he analyzes is not easily accessible outside the recording studio." — Beverley Diamond, author of Native American Music in Eastern North America: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Christopher A. Scales is Assistant Professor of Ethnomusicology at Michigan State University.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

Part I. Northern Plains Powwow Culture

1. Powwow Practices: Competition and the Discourse of Tradition 27

2. Powwow Songs: Aesthetics and Performance Practice 63

3. Drum Groups and Singers 112

Part II. The Mediation of Powwows

4. The Powwow Recording Industry in Western Canada: Race, Culture, and Commerce 143

5. Powwow Music in the Studio: Mediation and Musical Fields 187

6. Producing Powwow Music: The Aesthetics of Liveness 212

7. Powwows "Live" and "Mediated" 241

Coda. Recording Culture in the Twenty-First Century 268

Appendix: Notes on the CD Tracks 282

Notes 289

References 311

Index 323

A photo gallery appears after page 140.
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Winner, 2013–2014 International Association for the Study of Popular Music (IASPM)-Canada Book Prize

Association for Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC) Certificate of Merit in the Best Research in Folk, World, or Ethnic Music category

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-5338-6 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-5323-2
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