John Scabby Robe’s piercing cry resonates through the gymnasium-like pavilion in his hometown of White Swan, Wash. (pop. 3,033), rising above the thousands of muffled voices of people attending the Treaty Day Powwow last June.
A second later, Scabby Robe’s 10 brothers, seated with him in a circle, join in and together they sing in Blackfeet, the language of their ancestors. Each pounds a large cowhide drum, keeping the hypnotic rhythm of their song.
During their performance, sweat shines on their foreheads and darkens their shirt collars. The brothers’ faces twist and pull with effort, eyes closed in concentration, as the song, a blend of oscillating high and low tones, climaxes into a crescendo of voices that seem to emanate from each man’s soul.
A crowd presses in around the brothers. Some people hold recorders to capture the music on tape. Others just want to get close to the band of brothers known as the Black Lodge Singers, one of the nation’s most popular powwow music groups.
Since Kenny Scabby Robe, 60, formed the group in 1982 with his 12 sons, the Black Lodge Singers—named for a band of tribal guardians who historically watched over the Blackfeet camp—have recorded 25 albums, been nominated for five Grammy Awards, won top prizes at powwows, played with rock stars and orchestras, and performed for international audiences and dignitaries, including Pope John Paul II.
“Black Lodge gets superior sound because they have been singing to each other such a long time. The uniformity of their singing and the tightness of it—that isn’t easy to do,” says Robert Doyle, president of Canyon Records, the Phoenix, Ariz.-based recording company that has released 21 of Black Lodge’s albums. “Artistically, that makes them very strong.”
But Kenny Scabby Robe wasn’t thinking about sound quality when he made an off-hand remark that altered his family’s fate 23 years ago.
His sons, then ages 15 to toddler, begged Scabby Robe to take them to the powwow near their Yakama Nation home. Powwows are festive gatherings where dozens of groups come to sing, dance, drum and compete for prizes.
“I knew if I took them they’d want popcorn and all that stuff,” recalls Kenny, who worked as a laborer at the time. “I didn’t have that kind of money, so I told the boys—as a way to get out of going—that I’d take them only if they were going to sing and dance.”
Within days the boys were practicing, and Scabby Robe decided to teach them the traditional songs that he learned as a child and others that he had sung with his father-in-law, renowned singer Jim Weasel Tail, who died in 1975.
From the beginning, John, the middle son, was compelled by the spiritual and celebratory nature of the music. He prayed for the gift of song in the family’s sweat lodge, and melodies came to mind.
“It was important to me that we have our own songs,” says John, now 35 and living in White Swan.
With his father’s help, John added lyrics to the melodies, and the boys began rehearsing, sometimes twice a day.
Nowadays, the group performs mostly original material—sometimes melodies without lyrics—created by John and other brothers who hum the tunes until the others learn it by ear. The Scabby Robes don’t read music.
“The music is mostly on a feeling level,” John says. “We don’t sing for the glory or the hype or the recognition. We’re singing from the heart for all the people out there. It’s feeling music that helps spiritually and mentally.”
Though oldest brother Thomas died in 2003, and others have left White Swan, the Black Lodge Singers still perform at more than 100 events and powwows each year. Other musicians sometimes fill in for an absent brother, but performing is primarily a family endeavor, shared with wives and children, who travel with the group. Kenny Scabby Robe hopes his grandchildren will carry on the tradition.
For now, the success of the Black Lodge Singers rests solely on a band of brothers devoted to their music and each other.
That’s why the music is so meaningful,” says Matthew Scabby Robe, 28. “No matter where we go, or what we get to do, as long as I have my brothers with me—that’s the highlight.”
Visit www.canyonrecords.com for more information.