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Native Music Styles Collide, Blend For Songcatchers

Like a lot of bands, the SongCatchers were born in a Seattle music club - but this was an unusual birth and the SongCatchers an unlikely child.

The SongCatchers will appear Saturday evening at The Met.

Singer Lani Lavi was fronting a Seattle blues band, Red Dog Zen, when she invited Mark Smith and Arlie Neskahi of the Indian drum group White Eagle to jam one night.

On first blush, it didn’t seem like much of a match. White Eagle is a revered Native drum group; their work is suggested listening in the Smithsonian archives. Red Dog Zen was a bar band.

Arlie Neskahi said he had his doubts.

“I’m real picky about who I’ll become involved with. It’s really strange when two things collide. After getting my voice from praying in a sweat lodge it’s hard for me to sell it.”

But Lavi, who works as environmental lawyer for the Muckleshoot Tribe, prevailed.

“She gave me the feeling that what we do will not exploit the Indian traditions,” Neskahi said.

Mark Cardenas used to play keyboards in Morris Day’s band, The Time, and appeared in the Prince movie “Purple Rain.” He was playing with Lavi in Red Dog Zen the night Smith and Neskahi joined in.

Cardenas has found himself in some pretty intense musical situations, but this night was magical, he said.

“When they set up the drum and began singing, everybody in the band stopped playing. I tried to match the pitch they were singing in. I just sort of closed my eyes and dreamed along. It worked into a frenzy of a sound and then it just stopped. Everybody looked around and said ‘What was that?’ It was a sound nobody had heard before.”

Lavi said the feeling extended beyond the bandstand and into the audience.

“The audience was floored … People in the audience knew they saw something new born.”

The something new turned out to be the SongCatchers, a large, multicultural musical group that blends rock, R&B;, jazz and pop over traditional Native American underpinnings.

A typical SongCatchers performance finds Neskahi and Smith, along with Robert Charles, Everitt White and Dave Madera, around the powwow drum, drumming and chanting. They’re joined by Smith’s mother, Wilma Arquette, who sings and dances, while Cardenas on keyboards, and Maurice Jones, Jr. on bass pick up the groove.

In the middle of all that, Lavi stands and sings her adaptations of the Indian myths and oral history that form the backbone of the group’s repertoire.

Some nights, Charles Neville of the Neville Brothers joins in on flute and saxophone. Although he won’t appear with the SongCatchers Saturday, Neville is considered an official, part-time member of the group and appears on their debut CD, “Dreaming In Color.”

Lavi says the group is part of a growing movement that is making Native traditions contemporary.

“At one show last year, when we played in front of a thousand Native American teenagers, I saw the crowd tapping its feet to the music of two worlds. It’s important for me to help Native kids understand that their heritage is part of a living culture, that it can be part of what is happening in music today, yet stay pure. Most of all, it doesn’t have to be kept under glass somewhere in Washington, D.C.”

Charles Neville said the group was purely a labor of love before the SongCatchers were signed to A&M; Records.

The name of the group is taken from a Duwamish story about the way songs are given to humans.

“There’s a painting of Indian people holding up a big dreamcatcher,” Neville said, “and there are musical notes coming down from the sky and being caught in it. It’s like the image of a songcatcher.”

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with story: The SongCatchers Location and time: The Met, Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $10.50, $7.50 students ($12.50 at the door)

This sidebar appeared with story: The SongCatchers Location and time: The Met, Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $10.50, $7.50 students ($12.50 at the door)