Todi Neesh Zhee Singers take a look over their collective shoulder
By Cindy Yurth
WINDOW ROCK, July 25, 2013
W hen 30-year-old artists sing about the good old days, it's just annoying.
But a band with 35 years of performing under their belts, a band that has lost and gained members along the way - lost as in, no longer on this planet - that's a band entitled to some nostalgia.
As long as they throw in a few upbeat songs.
For those who like the steady beat of traditional Navajo song-and-dance music, the Todi Neesh Zhee Singers' eighth CD, "First Night: Moonlit Nights" is a real treat. It combines traditional song-and-dance courting songs with reflections on their long career and the people who influenced them along the way.
All the songs are original, but true to the traditional Navajo style, sung in unison accompanied only by a single drum.
"We thought 35 years as a group deserved an album," said lead composer Alger Greyeyes, who is surprisingly soft-spoken when he's not singing.
Todi Neesh Zhee hasn't recorded since its Grammy-winning "Dancers of Mother Earth" in 2006, partly because they were waiting singer Dennis Nelson to get over a long illness. He passed away before the guys could get to the studio, but "First Night" is dedicated to him.
When Todi Neesh Zhee formed in 1978, they were a group of recovering alcoholics, most of them related, some of them self-medicating for post-traumatic stress left over from Vietnam. Sadly, history has repeated itself, and a new generation of traumatized veterans is coming home.
To help them heal, and because "First Night" refers to the Nidaa', this album contains two veterans' honor songs, "The Price of Victory" and "With All My Might I Went into Battle."
The latter, Greyeyes explained, was written with his grandfather, Code Talker Sam Holiday, in mind.
"I call him 'Windtalker,'" Greyeyes said, "because he claims the movie 'Windtalkers' was based on his experience in World War II."
The four nostalgia songs, in case younger listeners want to skip them, are clustered together in the 8th through 11th tracks. They include "Back N da Day" ("Self-explanatory," says Greyeyes), "Yeah (Memories)," "I Heard Natay" and "Our Journey."
Of these, "I Heard Natay" is the most interesting, with Greyeyes recollecting his boarding school days when he was not allowed to speak Navajo, except at "Indian Club," when the children who were interested could study their culture.
Greyeyes got a hold of a recording of Ed Lee Natay, the first Diné traditional singer to be recorded by Canyon Records, and was awestruck that songs in Navajo could end up on a record.
"He may have been the first person to inspire me to do what I'm doing now," Greyeyes said.
Some songs also pay homage to Apache singer Paul Ortega.
"Tracks 2 ('What Good Dancing'), 5 ('Apache Spirit') and 6 ('Our Children Are Dancing') are semi-Apache," Greyeyes said, although you probably have to be a real song-and-dance connoisseur to be able to tell.
After 35 years, what's left for Todi Neesh Zhee? Don't be surprised if their next album (which Greyeyes has already titled "Second Night") contains some soprano and alto voices. The formerly all-male group has added women, including Greyeyes' girlfriend, Marjorie Sherlock.
"It's a new journey for us," said Greyeyes.
"First Night: Moonlit Night" (Canyon Records) is available through the band or from Native music outlets.
Cindy Yurth can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.