Universal truths, ancient wisdom
"Enemy Slayer: A Navajo Oratorio" reveals deep meaning of creation story
By Marley Shebala
(Special to the Times - Leigh T. Jimmie)
"I smoked myself in the mad smoke of war. Mothers' hopes wrapped in bloodied rags."
In such words was the nightmare of war, modern and ancient, brought to life in "Enemy Slayer: A Navajo Oratorio," which premiered Feb. 7 as the centerpiece of the Phoenix Symphony's 60th anniversary.
"Enemy Slayer" casts the story of a battle-fatigued Navajo warrior returning from Iraq in epic terms, inspired by - but not violating - the sacred 'Anaa'jí (Enemy Way) ceremony.
The first-ever oratorio to be based on an indigenous creation story, rather than the Bible, "Enemy Slayer" was performed before sold-out audiences Feb. 7 and 9, winning a 10-minute standing ovation after its premiere.
The performances marked the culmination of nearly two years of work by composer Mark Grey, who recruited award-winning Navajo poet Laura Tohe to write the lyrics, or libretto, that give shape to his visionary concept.
The 70-minute piece featured a chorus of 140 singers, a full symphony orchestra, baritone soloist Scott Hendricks, and the Southwest landscape photography of Deborah O'Grady projected on a 12-by-21 foot screen.
The result was an experience so moving that some audience members shed tears, and no one was left untouched by its depth of meaning.
Navajo history is one of surviving dangerous times and powerful enemies, beginning with the story of heroic twin brothers who defeated the monsters that inhabited Dinétah, the Navajo homeland.
The twins, Monster Slayer and Child of Water, won that battle only to face a new one when they returned home: a vast inner torment that emptied their lives of happiness.
Nightmares, hopelessness and emotional numbness separated them from their loved ones. Instead of glory, they felt fear, anxiety, and the need to be alone. They thought of suicide.
The Diné loved and admired the hero twins so they beseeched the Holy Ones to heal them. In response, the Holy Ones created the 'Anaa'jí, now one of the most widely practiced ceremonies of the people.
Seeker, the Navajo veteran in "Enemy Slayer," suffers from the same illness as the hero twins. The Western world once called it "battle fatigue" but now knows it as "post traumatic stress disorder."
Clad in worn blue jeans, white T-shirt and unbuttoned shirt was the soloist Hendricks, whose portrayal of a war veteran crumbling under survivor's guilt punched through the air.
"Brother, I miss you tonight. In my mind I see the mound of earth and the plastic flowers baked by the sun that cover you now."
As the chorus responded, photos of the Fort Defiance veterans' cemetery filled the screen, with torn American flags waving atop rows of graves under a striking blue sky and white clouds.
O'Grady's photographs conveyed the majesty of Seeker's homeland, even as they also portrayed his mood. The nightmares of war that torment him are captured by Tohe's words and painted by Hendricks in an intensely emotional solo: "The children lay like broken toys spilled on the streets. Red rags. Limbs and dreams rearranged by war. A sister recoils. Bodies and blood for the 21st century monster. I don't trust the stillness."
"I wish for sleep, a deep sleep not hammered with gunfire and the click of my nerves, nor the sight of bodies and bloody rags scattered like trash cast to the wolves in the deserted streets. When I'm not looking, they call me hero."
At each turn the choir, representing Seeker's mother, his ancestors and the Holy Ones, responds. His emotional torture and healing are underscored by the instruments of the orchestra, conducted by Michael Christie.
As Seeker contemplates suicide - "I am lost. What's the use to go on living when I am here and want to be there? T'áadoo biniiyéhi'dah (what's the use for my existence?)" - his ancestors remind him: "Shiyázhi, wéé, t'óó báhádzid! (beloved child, it is a dangerous thing to say!) Please be careful with what you say. You are speaking for all of us. Nihiyázhí nílí (you are our beloved child). You were not born without a reason. You are a miracle brought to live, given breath."
They plead with him to return to the natural order in the world.
"You have walked away from the corn pollen path...Return to the Beauty Way."
They also give him words of comfort.
"In the world, there is evil and beauty, sickness and health, disorder and harmony, light and darkness. Balance must always be restored.
"Shiyázhi, take courage. Listen to our guidance, spoken with much love for you. You were raised with the natural laws of the Holy People. You were raised with Sa'ah naaghai bik'eh hozhoon.
"Remember the stories. Remember the songs. Remember the prayers. Remember who you are. What we have taught you. What the Holy People have taught you. They are in your hands now. You are armed to walk forward into the world with courage, with strength, with bravery."
And Seeker remembers.
"To choose the abyss or to slay the enemy pressed inside me. I hear my relatives' voices in my dreams. I know it's time to make the choice. I walk with knowledge of my path. I sing with the power of my song. I pray with thunder words. I hold the power of my shield. I know who I am. I am Enemy Slayer.
"I take myself back. I make the world safe...Early twilight dawn brings the cleansing light. I emerge from the belly of my mother's beauty.
"Shimasaan, shicheii, nanisdza (grandmother, grandfather, I return.) I return from the enemy by means of sacred prayer. I am cleansed of war."
The closing song is a prayer, repeated four times by the entire cast - Seeker, his mother, his ancestors, the Holy Ones - singing as one: "Hozho nahasdlii dooleet (let peace prevail)."
Some works of music, like great paintings, live on to become part of humanity's heritage. The most famous oratorio, George Handel's "The Messiah," comes to mind.
The Phoenix Symphony through a generous but anonymous donor has taken steps to ensure that "Enemy Slayer: A Navajo Oratorio" will not be forgotten. The concert was recorded and the symphony plans to release it as a CD on the Naxos label.
In addition, another performance has already been scheduled. "Enemy Slayer" will be performed during the Colorado Music Festival in Boulder on July 24 and 25.
Information: www.coloradomusicfest.org or David Nischwitz at firstname.lastname@example.org or 602-495-1117, ext. 319.