Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate: Lowak Shoppala’ (Fire and Light)
Richard Ray Whitman (narrator), Stephen Clark (baritone), Chelsea Owen (soprano), Meghan Vera Starling (soprano), Lynn Moroney (storyteller), Wes Studi (storyteller), Chickasaw Nation Children’s Chorus, Chickasaw Nation Dance Troupe, Nashville String Machine, Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate (conductor)
Recording: Ocean Way Studios, Nashville, Tennessee, East Central University and Chickasaw National Multimedia Studios, Ada, Oklahoma, Audio Recording Studios, Bentleyville, Ohio (2009) – 78’48
Azica Records ACD-71329 – Booklet in English
Lowak Shoppala’ (Fire and Light) by Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate, a classical composer and citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, is an imaginative fusion of Chickasaw culture with the Western classical tradition. Tate conducts musicians from the Nashville String Machine, a narrator, storytellers and a host of soloists, Chickasaw Nation dancers and children’s chorus, in a work that could be called an opera or oratorio but is referred to in the accompanying booklet as a combination of modern classical music and theater.
The poetic English libretto was written by Linda Hogan, writer-in-residence for the Chickasaw Nation. The Nashville String Machine is a group of orchestral musicians who are best known for performing with popular singers.
The work is in eight scenes, depicting different aspects of Chickasaw history and culture. But before considering Lowak Shoppala’ as a musical entity, listeners would do well to ask themselves, what exactly is the Chickasaw Nation? This album may represent the first opera, oratorio or theatrical piece ever which combines classical-style music with the culture and poetry of an American-Indian Nation. Other than to provide a forum for the composition and performance of excellent new classical music, is the purpose of this work to educate or to celebrate or perhaps both?
Intrigued by the meaning of Chickasaw, I learned that there are actually 574 federally recognized Indian nations in 36 states, according to the National Congress of American Indians. Once indigenous to what is now Mississippi and adjacent states, the Nation is headquartered in Ada, Oklahoma. There are approximately 38,000 Chickasaw citizens today. The Nation’s official language is Chikashshanompa’.
It is essential to have some of this background to appreciate the importance of this album. The compelling stories, invariably focusing on the animals (squirrels, raccoons, even a spider) associated with Chickasaw clans, take on a memorable shape in Hogan’s verses and Tate’s compelling music. In our age of waste and ecological indifference, hearing these ancient tales in new forms of expression makes us reexamine our own values and the world we share with creatures who may have more wisdom than we care to admit.
Floating between the stories are beautiful, sometimes disturbing orchestral interludes, as interesting and diverse as any to be found in Western opera. At times, the whirring rise and descent of violins reminded me of effects in Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra while other passages were infused with the spirit of Stravinsky, Bernstein and Khatchaturian, while retaining their originality. This is real music written by Tate to honor his people by sharing their stories with the greater world community.
My only criticisms relate not to the artistry of music and verse, but rather to the presentation. The accompanying booklet has 13 pages of biographical information about the performers, but readers are sent to a website to read the libretto indispensable to understanding the production. Also, some background on the Chickasaw Nation would have been helpful as many listeners seek to hear and understand the voices of those who have survived attempts to silence their cultures.
Lowak Shoppala’ is definitely a worthwhile sortie to that place between two important artistic traditions where knowing connections are made and barriers to communication fade away.