Robert Mirabal Speaks: On Music, On Family, On the Earth
Southwest Flair's Exclusive Interview with Two-Time GRAMMY-Award-Winner Robert Mirabal
An artist’s creations are spawned in part by the things that are important to him and nowhere is this more evident than in the artistic works of Native American flutist, performer, actor, writer, artist, craftsman, father and farmer: Robert Mirabal. Whether it is a soulful recording or musical performance, the written word, traditional Pueblo art or crafts-work, the caring for his family or the growing of corn at the Taos Pueblo, these deep-rooted and meaningful areas of his life have contributed richly to all that he brings forth.
The reputation Mirabal has established as Native American "Renaissance man" to "one of the trailblazers of tribal rock" continues to evolve as does the man and his work. Over two decades of world touring and live performances, a two-time Native American Artist of the Year, three-time Songwriter of the Year, a 2006 GRAMMY Award for Sacred Ground, and his 2008 GRAMMY Award for Johnny Whitehorse Totemic Flute Chants, the 2002 breakthrough PBS Special, Music From A Painted Cave, a dozen CDs and his recent portrayal as Tony Lujan (Taos Pueblo), the famed husband of Mable Dodge Lujan, in the 2009 movie Georgia O'Keeffe, have all lent to his acclaimed status. Yet there is much more, as we will soon discover, to this humble flute-maker from Taos Pueblo.
As you journey along in our exploration with the multi-faceted, multi-talented aspects of this musical warrior for peace, you will learn what we did: do what you love and the simple joys and aspects of life will come naturally. Integrate the different areas of your life as much as you may, rather than separating them, to discover and experience the fullness and richness that doing so can bring.
One of Mirabal’s latest projects is Po’Pay Speaks, his one-man performance of the presentation of the history and continuing influence of Po’Pay during the 1680 Pueblo Revolt.
According to Mirabal’s website where he discusses the performance, "Po’Pay was a visionary and a mystic," Mirabal says. "He organized all twenty-five New Mexico Pueblos into a unified force that drove the Spanish all the way to El Paso and probably saved the Pueblo people from extinction. With music, dance and storytelling, I’ll attempt to inhabit the spirit of this great leader – what he accomplished and why, and if he were still alive, what his message would be to Pueblo people today."
"These are – once again – perilous times for the Pueblos." Mirabal continues. "Consumerism is nibbling at the edges of our culture. Our young people are more interested in Facebook than traditional dances. They no longer grow corn, and without corn, why do the Corn Dance? We’ll see what Po’Pay has to say."
Po’Pay Speaks was performed in an eighteen-show run last summer in Santa Fe and is now scheduled to make its international debut this month in Spain. As Mirabal prepares for this exciting new phase, having just completed a brief South American tour with another scheduled in June, he paused to share his own thoughts with us on the many varied aspects of his life and career. Let us take a moment now for Robert Mirabal to speak:
SWF: Robert let’s just talk about you and what you’re doing. You have many areas of interest and creativity, in addition to raising a family and community involvement. How do you manage your time spent on each?
RM: I guess I have to say it’s organizing the week, the day, the events, and then the basic needs of everyone.
SWF: Of all of your combined works, is music your first love?
RM: Yes I think so. Right now it's collaboration with different artists.
SWF: What part of the musical process do you enjoy the most? (I.e. songwriting, performing, recording)
RM: I like performing . . .
SWF: We’ve watched your videos and heard your music for years now but recently we watched Stilt Walker and I just want to say it is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. That was from Music From A Painted Cave, is that right?
RM: Yeah, that was interesting. I had been working on several other shows, one called Spirit at the same time, and then this other, larger production called One World, and then I was also working on my own show. Before Music From A Painted Cave was ever developed, we had done four different versions of it, and I knew that one of the stories I wanted to do involved creating a fantastic type of visual imagery with the people I already knew and the people that were part of the band. Before I became really professional, I was an actor. I had studied acting, lighting, costume design and set design. I had studied those while I was doing Summer Stock in different places and so when I started to create Music From A Painted Cave it came from that perspective, from a theatrical perspective. I wanted to create something that would be entertaining on all levels.
SWF: Well you pulled it off because that was my thought, that it seemed very theatrical. Everything was very theatrical, The Courtship Song, that brought tears to my eyes.
RM: Yeah, The Courtship Song. I was hoping that there would be more contemporary musicians who would incorporate more of what I created from A Painted Cave. But the more I wanted that, the more I realized that you know, a lot of my contemporaries didn’t have that theatrical background in the way I created. Also, I was immersed in the song and dance from a traditional and cultural perspective since I was young and so it was easy for me to apply what I knew and balance the two out so that people really got a stronger taste of a kind of dance that was traditionally-oriented but still had that contemporary feel to it in that rock vein. So to me, it was just a natural occurrence. It wasn’t in such huge leaps and bounds. But then I began to see other people, the people that I would work with who were kind of in the same genre that I was, and they were kind of struggling with how to create that. For me it was just something that was pretty basic.
SWF: In The Courtship Song, who is the lead dancer?
RM: That’s a really good friend of mine. We were friends for a long time. Her name is Rulan and she’s based out of Santa Fe and has her own dance company of indigenous dancers in contemporary form.
And you know in the last few years, I’ve really enjoyed collaborating whether it be with dancers, musicians, designers of some sort; I love collaboration. Artistic collaboration is, I think, the key to a lot of my success because I’m not afraid to explore and experience different veins of expression; not just music, but many different elements. I’ve been lucky in finding people that create some expansion at that level.
SWF: About the choreography for Music from A Painted Cave, did you choreograph that yourself?
RM: Yeah, I did a lot of the choreography. There are times when you let your dancers do what they do best and then all you need to do is just basically say well this part in the choreography should end up here in a certain moment of the music. Introduce exits into the body of the piece and if there’s something that the dancers are really good at then we try to feature those elements. But other than that, just let people do what they do best and then you do what you do best and try to find a meeting place and that’s where it becomes really golden.
SWF: On the Valley of Dreams Video . . .
RM: Yeah it was on top of a mesa and that was with John Tesh. That was an interesting piece of work because that was about the same time as Music from A Painted Cave and The Spirit Dance, the one that I did with Peter Buffet. It had the same vibes to it. It was right at the edge of the peak of the world music genre and there was a Native American Music Board, it was their first year. The Grammy’s were really interested in Native music and Hawaiian music and music of the islands, so it was at the peak of all that. I got a call to do some collaborative work with John Tesh and I thought it was like a joke, you know, because I didn’t even know he was a musician. He came up with a nice piece and then I came up with the story line and the flute line. His idea was to do it, though it wasn’t necessarily going to be on the mesa but then there were some weather issues that were supposed to take place. So something that was supposed to take four days took ten days to do because helicopters couldn’t go there in foggy conditions. I remember filming two days on the mesa but then the whole thing took a lot longer than expected. That’s a beautiful piece because I wanted to base it around a love story and that bittersweet quality. At that time there was a lot of Native warrior music, you know like drumming and that warrior vibe, and so I wanted to create a song that was immersed in the element of love.
SWF: It was very beautiful and one of my favorite videos I have ever seen. The music is fantastic, the song is fantastic.
RM: There’s a funny out-take on that, one of the port-a-potties fell off the cliff (laughter).
SWF: Well let's hope no one was in it! You also like to write. . . What first inspired you to write?
RM: Reading, and exploration with other cultures and artists.
SWF: What books or projects have you written and are they available for purchase?
RM: Running Alone in Photographs, a novel; Skeleton of a Bridge, prose poetry; Believe in the Corn, oral history; and Po'pay Speaks; a play.
SWF: Can you share a little info with our readers on the various arts or crafts made by you and your family and where they may be purchased?
RM: They may be purchased at Mirabal.com as well as at Mirabal Native Gifts at Taos Pueblo There are many, many items; from flutes, amulet jewelry to CDs to moccasins. Many things . . .
SWF: Have these arts been passed down traditionally in your family?
RM: Yeah, some of it.
SWF: So you’re really big on family, how many children do you have?
RM: I have three girls. Yeah family and culture. It’s difficult in my line of work to maintain a family but it’s so important to me. You gotta connect, you gotta connect man. If you can’t connect, you gotta at least make the effort to. I don’t know, I think it’d be a lot different if I didn’t have my culture or, not only my immediate family, but the family at the Pueblo, because we’re rich in our culture. You can’t find it anywhere and so I have really tried to immerse my children in that world as much as I can. That’s one of the things that set me apart from a lot of my contemporary counterparts, that I still lived a committed life on the Pueblo. That was so important to me and it still is. That kind of gave me a different edge you know? I wasn’t just forcing myself and pushing ideas, I was actually living it. So the children grew up within the extremities of a rock and roll life and then the beauty and the lifestyle of the Pueblo too. That’s always been important.
SWF: It’s hard to give to a family and do what you do, but you seem to be doing it very well. You seem to give to your family but still are able to get out there and work. Does your family travel with you?
RM: My oldest is fifteen now and she was four months old when we took her out. By the time she was almost a year old she had spent more time on a tour bus than she had in a house. I had a huge connection to people in Japan so I would bring people out who wanted to visit Japan and they would be like nannies or they would be like assistants. They would take care of the kids. There was always someone around them, especially within the business. There was always somebody that wanted to help. I think the fan base I have now is very appreciative of that commitment to my family. They (the fans) saw it on tour, they saw it on stage, and they saw it actualize off-stage too. I think that’s one of the reasons that my career has really just solidified itself in the way that it did. It was because even though life was changing around me, I brought in my family; not necessarily just to raise them, but I created a whole 'nother lifestyle based around my children.
The last gig we did was in Ecuador. You know my wife is a dancer, and my daughter is studying at the New Mexico School for the Performing Arts. She a violinist. She’s studying my music and she's studying all kinds of stuff and at the same time she’s also interested in other cultures too so she’s studying a lot of stuff from Peru and Ecuador. So it was a good experience for all of us, not just for her. It’s a new relationship with my fifteen-year-old that I never thought I would have. It’s an evolution. As a father you never know everything and it’s better to just be open to them so they teach you also.
SWF: Absolutely, I’ve said many times I’ve learned more from my children than I will ever teach them.
RM: I always say they’re your best teachers. You can study with the Dalai Lama for twenty years but the first few months with your first child is gonna teach you more than you ever thought or imagined.
SWF: Yes, it shows us what we are and who we are and why we do the things we do. Generally speaking then, a lot of the people you work with are your friends and family?
RM: Yeah just about. I mean, the band members are probably the only ones that are not related. The dancers I took to Ecuador, three of them were my relatives. They also like to perform and they also do a pretty good job at it so I like to open myself up to that.
SWF: Was that the first time you’ve been to South America?
RM: No, I’ve been down there before, a couple of years ago. We’re planning another tour in June during their Inti Raymi Festival. It’s a Festival of the Sun, I think around solstice. We’ll start in a place called Caniar. It’s in Southern Ecuador. The people of the Caniar were one of the only tribal people; farmers, that didn’t get conquered by the Incas. I really have an affinity to those people; farmers, people of the corn. Everything based around the celebration of the sun, the moon, the heavens, agriculture.
You know you see thousands of people when you play here in America, and you don’t know what to expect, and then you go down there and because of YouTube and everything, you go out there not knowing what to expect either. But then there’s like five- thousand people out there in the audience. It’s pretty amazing. I love it down there.
SWF: We saw some of the videos that you shot down there. That was one of my thoughts, that it would be like finding more of your people in another place.
RM: No shit man, that’s totally what happened. It's like 'holy shit man', look at these people. They look like my cousins or people I grew up with, or people that live at the Pueblo. And they love corn. They love the society of farming. There were women with Mantas, and people planting in the Andes in the middle of nowhere. Just simple foods and simple thoughts and simple songs. It’s like these people love me too man. It’s like going back into the Pueblo probably a hundred years ago.
SWF: Yes, I was going to say maybe even a little farther back in time. And you work a lot with farming . . . Of all your works and interests, is there one thing you have to do more than the others?
RM: Farming. It’s the basis of our people; of all people. You gotta go back to agriculture man. That’s where you realize what it means, your world; what it actually means. And for sure before the industrial revolution took a hold of us in America. It’s radical, radical. I love traveling and finding old places. I did a show called Po’Pay Speaks last year and it was a one-man show, really successful, that we did in Santa Fe. It was an eighteen-show run. We did two free shows here in Taos and then I was invited to go to Spain. The play has been translated into Spanish so that gives me the opportunity to do the show in Central America, in South America, in Spanish-speaking communities all over the world. I’m looking forward to really establishing that part of my life. It’s a simple, basic show, but this show is so profoundly oriented to our existence as Pueblo people, and then beyond that, to our existence of ourselves as human beings. So I’m looking forward to traveling a lot more. Not necessarily just in America but overseas, doing more stuff. That seems to be what’s happening. And Mongolia, I’d love to go to Mongolia.
SWF: I would think that would feel similar. A lot of genetics there that tie the two cultures together. We’re all tied together, we just all went different paths somewhere along the way and we all ended up where we are now. Does your Pueblo agricultural work extend to, or influence, the outer world?
RM: To some extent everything I do based on farming has some influence at least to my work. And I think that’s the fascinating thing about living life in New Mexico because it’s been influenced from all over the world. We’re at the tip of the Camino Real*, we have some profound history too that has been influenced by the world. I love living here in New Mexico. I love to see my people dancing, all the Pueblos doing their ceremonies, hearing their songs. I tend to relate to the Gypsy culture and I love the Flamenco movement, the sounds of Flamenco and the world of Flamenco, but it’s the world of the Gypsy. You’ll find that style everywhere all over Eastern Europe, Spain, Mexico, everywhere, and in America. It’s not necessarily rooted in Spanish, it’s a Gypsy culture, the culture of the Roma.
SWF: What message is there for those living outside pueblo life that you try to share through this area of your life and work?
RM: We’re all in it together. The best ideas can only be processed through sharing.
SWF: If any of the works of Robert Mirabal were taught in New Mexico public schools, what message would you most want to see presented to the children?
RM: A true-to-life tale . . . no exceptions to political correctness or being patronized.
SWF: Robert, you've already accomplished so much, what are your future hopes and plans?
RM: I hope to become stronger on all levels of my art and to expose my ability as a pueblo farmer and musician to all parts of the world. The message can vary but it’s all the same: without knowledge of the mother Earth then we leave a pile of dust behind for all children . . . And I’m looking forward to seeing what happens in the next ten years in artistic expression in New Mexico and I’m hoping to be at the forefront of it. –END–
Perhaps someday, generations from now, another talented visionary decedent will perform Robert Mirabal Speaks and continue the message . . . In the meantime, for us, for our generation, for his children and Pueblo community, as well as the rest of the world, we would do well to heed the wisdom Mirabal so passionately shares.
For more information, gifts, tour dates, books, AND music, visit www.mirabal.com
Find Robert Mirabal on Facebook
Watch The Courtship Song from the 2002 groundbreaking PBS special, Music From A Painted Cave
Editor’s Note: I would like to thank the Mirabals for their gracious effort and allowance of time in preparation of this feature. Rock on, Sing on, Dance on, Plant on . . . ~ cb
Additional thanks to Lightbenders Visuals for their beautiful imagery.
*Spanish for "The Royal Road"