10 Indigenous musicians in classical music you should know

November 17, 2021
Cellist, composer and educator Dawn Avery.Cellist, composer and educator Dawn Avery.Courtesy of Dawn Avery
Cellist, composer and educator Dawn Avery.

A small but powerful source of inspiration can be found at the intersection of classical music and Indigenous nations across the U.S. and Canada. CPR Classical celebrates "Native American Heritage Month" this November by amplifying Indigenous classical composers, musicians and creators that we've discovered above the Rio Grande River - especially Mohican, Navajo, Cree, Métis, Odawa First Nations, Ute and Chickasaw. Here are 10 Native American musicians to explore. 

Dawn Avery

Cellist, vocalist, composer and educator of Mohawk descent, and part of the North American Indian Cello Project. Aside from performing with musicians like Luciano Pavarotti and Philip Glass, Avery has committed her career to Indigenous cultural preservation and education. She has published several articles on Native classical music and Indigenous theory. 

Where to start: Avery’s Duo Concertante “Ohnekha'shòna Yakònkwe” is dedicated to murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls. Ohnekha'shòna Yakònkwe, which translates to “waters women,” connects and highlights the importance of protecting both water and women. 

Explore: Dawn Avery's Website

Andrew Balfour

A composer of Cree descent based in Winnipeg. Balfour has written works for revered groups like Roomful of Teeth and Tafelmusik, and serves as artistic director of Camerata Nova, whose mission is to “perform early, contemporary and Indigenous-infused vocal chamber concerts.”

Where to Start: "Vision Chant" is a work that Balfour himself mentions as a standout piece. He describes the alto drone as rocks starting a fire, with  the soprano melody igniting it.

Explore: Andrew Balfour and Camerata Nova's Website

Michael Begay

If you’re on the hunt for a range of music from one person, it’s Michael Begay. This Diné, or Navajo, composer creates everything from traditional to chamber music to metal. Begay has served as composition instructor for the Grand Canyon Music Festival’s Native American Composers Apprentice Project and South Dakota Symphony Orchestra’s Composition Academy.

Where to start: Check out the Podcast “Original Score” for an Indigenous perspective on music, including interviews with rising stars. Bonus: his music was featured in Voices from the Land, a 2021 showcase of living Indigenous musicians.

Explore: Michael Begay's Website

Raven Chacon

A visual and sonic artist. Chacon experiments in many different areas. The Navajo composer incorporates objects used as instruments, like a floating cello and a kitchen sink, into a genre called noise music. Check out this example of one in San Francisco. 

Where to start: The Kronos Quartet commissioned a work from Chacon for their "Fifty for the Future" project. His piece "The Journey of the Horizontal People" incorporates Navajo world views and roles for each individual player.

Explore: Raven Chacon's Website

Connor Chee

Pianist and composer mixing classical training with his Navajo heritage. Chee was awarded a gold medal from the World Piano Competition at age 12, and has won multiple Native American Music Awards. He creates music inspired by Navajo song and chant, and his most recent album, "The Navajo Piano (Revisited)," presents his original music side by side with traditional songs that inspired them. 

Where to start: Check out Chee’s "Scenes from Dinétah," inspired by Navajo life and culture. The project brings together piano, flute and spoken word in Navajo. You can listen to the album, and also check out Chee’s  collaboration with Navajo filmmaker Michael Eticitty Jr. on several music videos.

Explore: Connor Chee's Website

Barbara Croall

Composer, flutist, and vocalist in the traditional Anishinaabe way. Croall, an Odawa First Nation composer, has played the pipigwan (Native flute) since she was five. She studied classical music in North America and Europe and her music has been performed across the globe. 

Where to start: Croall’s "Nbiidaasamishkaamin" embodies the great lakes region in Quebec and Ontario. The work ebbs and flows with the current of a river.

Explore: Barbara Croall's Bio on "Native Drums"

Ian Cusson

Ian Cusson’s music explores the melding of Indigenous and western culture and the experience of a mixed racial identity. Cusson is of Métis and French Canadian descent, and has written 10 operas, either already produced or in the works, including his upcoming "Empire of the Wild," based on the  retelling of a traditional Métis tale by  Cherie Dimaline.

Where to start: Cusson wrote a new aria for the opera "Louis Riel" to replace sacred Indigenous music that was used without permission. His aria “Dodo, mon tout petit” is a stunning standalone work.

Explore: Ian Cusson's Website

Brent Michael Davids

A flutist and composer of music for groups like Chanticleer and the Kronos Quartet, as well as film soundtracks. Davids also co-founded the Native American Composer Apprentice Project, which teaches Native students how to compose and then gives them the opportunity to have their works played by professional ensembles. 

Where to start: David’s "Singing for Water" is a work designed to be performed by any vocal ensemble, and represents the need to protect water rights for all people.

Explore: Brent Michael Davids's Website

R. Carlos Nakai

R. Carlos Nakai is an 11-time Grammy-nominated Ute-Navajo musician. Although better known for his traditional and improvisational music, he started in the classical world as a trumpeter. After an accident in the military, Nakai found it difficult to play the instrument. He was gifted a flute, which put him on the path to becoming one of the best known performers of Native American flute. 

Where to start: Nakai and cellist Dawn Avery make for a haunting duo in Nakai’s “Indigenous Indigena.” Simple, straightforward, moving.

Explore: R. Carlos Nakai's Website

Jerod Tate

Chickasaw composer and pianist. Tate recently collaborated with the San Francisco Symphony on the video series "Thunder Song," which explores the crossroads of American Indian culture and classical music. His work has been performed by symphonies and performing arts organizations across the country, including the Colorado Ballet, and his music was featured in HBO’s Westworld

Where to Start: Tate’s “Pisachi” was commissioned by the string quartet  ETHEL, as part of the series "Home with ETHEL and Friends" at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Pisachi” accompanied a slideshow of images of the American southwest. Tate’s quartet also incorporates Hopi and Pueblo themes to match the Southwest setting.

Explore: Jerod Tate's Website

Save this playlist, and see what else these artists have to offer.

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