It’s like a proof for human connection: Every place has a song, and every people has a story. Art is the ultimate connector between generations and cultures. Within art, music is the language that unites us all. That was the concept behind our new film. Spirit Song explores the evolution of indigenous art in the United States, based on the album Voices of the Guardians, which is a collaboration between a 19 year old (!) Native American flautist, Gareth Laffely, with producer/pianist Lance Bendiksen and some of the brightest minds in Western music today, with the intention of bringing forward ancient Native American stories in a way that shows the modern relevance of indigenous stories and traditions.
A little backstory: when we were in the very early days of Citizen, we had some downtime from a conference in DC. We headed out of the convention center and made a beeline across The National Mall, straight into the National Museum of the American Indian. The vision for our startup agency was to help build awareness and generate market interest in underserved communities, and we were drawn to the Native American story early on, particularly because of the richness of the stories and traditions, but also because of the lack of current content that shares an optimistic message about these communities. This is a world of a million beautiful stories that should be celebrated and shared!
So when we were approached by “Visit The USA” to develop this film, we didn’t think twice! The assignment was, in part, to showcase the development of the Voices of the Guardians album while profiling the sacred tribal areas and nearby indigenous cultures that inspired it, as a way to drive interest in these locations for tourism. People travel for unique cultural experiences, and that market demand is what we’re hoping to nurture - driving tourism dollars to areas that need it most - while celebrating the stories these communities are sharing with us. We also had a chance to explore the unique sounds and the sense of place each location presented. It was inspiring to see how the characteristics of each location, from the climate to the animals, and even the sounds - like the sound of the waves crashing into boulders (in Maine) or flowing over shells (in Alaska) - influenced every aspect of local indigenous art, and how that influence continues to evolve today.
While the assignment to explore these local Native cultures was exciting, we were especially keen to help share a positive story for a community generally lacking them. Native American cultures have long been portrayed through a sort of tragic lens, and while there’s a great deal of tragedy in the collective Native American story, there is so much beauty and positivity. There’s a lot of room to show what’s good, and to celebrate the many cultures that have been here since time immemorial! It’s that beauty that Gareth and Lance are pulling forward with their album, to show the rest of the world that these cultures and their stories aren’t dead, and they’re certainly not irrelevant. Their stories are as relevant as ever.
What was hidden away and almost lost is a beacon of light in American history. And to say that we were honored and humbled to see that firsthand; to sit with Elders across the country, listen to their stories, hear their songs, and check out their artwork… that’s a huge understatement. It was the experience of a lifetime, along with filming the album recording sessions. The people we met were big hearted in a way I cannot describe, and I hope you feel even a fraction of that in watching the film. (We also shared this with an amazing crew, comprised of some of our own family members and the epically talented DP Jasper Newton, who can often be found jumping out of helicopters and filming on skis; and the always-inspiring photographer Daniel Volland, himself an Alaska veteran who moonlights as an optometrist for distant indigenous villages only reached by snow mobile. One of my favorite editors, Scott Gibney from Cutters, sat with me for no less than 4 weeks of story-weaving. (And we’re still friends!)
A note about that album: it’s incredible, and the people involved - including their families - are amazing (listen to Voices of the Guardians here). We started the film with the album recording sessions at Skywalker Sound in California. Skywalker Ranch is next-level for talent, but we can’t talk about it because of the NDA. What I can say, personally, is that being on the sound stage with the Skywalker Symphony or in the studio with Leslie Anne Jones while she’s mixing those epic sounds is to be exposed to feelings of bigness, like seeing a cathedral or ancient temple intended to show the power of the Almighty. Aside from Gareth, Lance, the Symphony and Jones, the room was filled in with other various legends: Charles Rose of the Muscle Shoals Swampers, Toby Scott who’s produced every Springsteen album there is, John Zoltek who is the conductor for Glacier National Symphony… And actor Wes Studi did the narration of various chiefs and sacred elders in his native Cherokee language. We stayed for the recording, and then set out across the country to visit the sacred Native places and communities that had inspired the songs on the album. You’ll see...
For now, the full 25 minute film is only available on GoUSA TV. Download it here.