Discovering an exciting new Native American flute artist like Marcia Watson Bendo reminds me just how long I’ve had a passion for her chosen genre. In the 90’s, when I was first getting into and writing about new age and world music, I loved the dual albums by pianist Peter Kater and flutist R. Carlos Nakai, and remember being enthralled by a performance by another great of the time, Douglas Spotted Eagle, at the Catalina Island JazzTrax Festival. In recent years, I have been a fan of artists like Ann Licater, and have used the beautiful sounds I hear on Pandora’s Indian Flute Radio for relaxation for me and a beloved pet.
One can enjoy that station for hours, but the general vibe is a flute, a bit of percussion and perhaps one other instrument, in simple sparse arrangements. Beyond the inspiring beauty of the 12 deeply heartfelt compositions on her soul stirring debut album Woodland Moons, perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Marcia’s epic work is that she has created a true Native flute symphony, complete with vibrant, sweeping string orchestrations and a (delightfully!) dizzying array of sonic textures, including harp, celesta, piano, vibraphone and cello.
It’s incredible to note that she generates all these sounds herself, backed only by Brazilian-born percussionist Rafael Pereira, who adds Marcia to a multi-genre resume that includes Janelle Monae, India.Arie, Shawn Mullins and Sonny Emory. The recording was mixed and mastered by Trammell Starks, a renowned arranger, orchestrator and new age artist in his own right, who brought extra magic and sparkle to Marcia's vision.
Marcia’s orchestral talents are rooted in her background studying classical music and playing violin with the Tulsa Philharmonic, the Tulsa Opera, the Tulsa ballet and legends like Sammy Davis, Jr., Doc Severinsen, Ella Fitzgerald and conductors Skitch Henderson and Arthur Fielder.
For fans of Native American flute, Marcia’s emotionally transporting journey of musical discovery can be enjoyed as a multi-faceted rhythmic and sonic experience like no other. Yet to fully understand her passion for this project and appreciate her mastery as a storyteller, a little background is essential. The music on Woodland Moons was inspired by the 12 full moon names (one for each month) of the North American Woodland indigenous people, the Anishinabe. One of their tribes, the Potawatomi, historically inhabited regions of North America, from the Upper Great Lakes to Marcia’s native Oklahoma.
She has been an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation (CPN) since she was a child; her great grandmother and her family were settled on allotments in Indian Territory in Oklahoma. Though she wasn’t raised in the culture or traditions, as an adult she developed a strong interest in them. Over the past 12 years, Marcia has participated in their cultural events (festivals, workshops, lessons), and she’s played the flute (which, incredibly, she first picked up in 2011) for the past seven years at the Potawatomi Cultural Heritage Center during the annual CPN festival. She was inspired to create Woodland Moons after participating in several full moon ceremonies and learning about the significance of each full moon.
With melodic grace (fashioned on flute and piano), sweet sensitivity, easy flowing rhythmic energy and strings that function equally as caressing harmony and lead voice of its own, Marcia fashions an impressionistic soundscape based on how each moon determines the tribe’s activities at different times of the year. The mood of the music and the journey it takes us on reflects the story being shared. For instance, the gently somber dreaminess of the opening track “Fallen Leaves Moon” reflects the shorter days of the approaching winter. Conveying a completely opposite feeling months later (though it is placed as track 2), “Planting Moon” is bright, playful and whimsical, full of bustling activity to convey the busy planting of corn, beans, squash and “sacred” tobacco.
Also of symbolic good cheer is “Strawberry Moon,” whose elegant flute and piano and swelling strings express the gathering of the “heart berries” gathered in early summer. The mystical and soulful, harp and chimes-laced ballad “Forest Moon” prepares our bodies and hearts for fall, its slow waltzy vibe enhanced by the scampering footsteps of the creatures therein.
You get the idea driving every fascinating moment. Each mood, each melody, each sonic detail and motif takes us to a different moment on the Potawatomi calendar, from the “Yellow Leaves Moon” of autumn to the “Snow Moon” in the dead of winter when everyone stayed inside and the elders told stories. Complementing the direct references to months and seasons are two bear related pieces, the adventurous, mystery-building (via a bassoon sound!) “Big Bear Moon,” where they’re seeking hibernation, and “Little Bear Moon,” a charming piece of childlike innocence conveying the birth of young cubs and the wonder they must experience during these months.
Marcia Bendo Watson is a fresh, wondrous presence on the new age/neo-classical/Native flute scene – and I predict that works like Woodland Moons will lead her at some point to share this music in a grand, multi-media setting featuring full orchestra, photos and videos and interpretive dancing.