Pura Fé on Pura Fé: her essential songs and albums
The Saskatoon-based, Tuscarora artist looks back at 30-plus years making music
Pura Fé didn't just grow up in a musical family; she comes from eight generations of Tuscarora women singers and musicians, including her opera singer mother, Nanice Lund, who performed with the Duke Ellington Orchestra as part of his Sacred Concert series. Pura Fé had a front row seat, in rehearsals and on tour, to witness for herself some of the greatest musicians in the world — and she remembers them all.
Born in New York City and immersed in the arts, Pura Fé grew up singing and studying ballet, and by the time she was a teenager she was already on Broadway, including one memorable but short stint with her best friend, Irene Cara (future music and film star, including the 1980 film Fame). They were cast in a new musical, 1972's Via Galactica, starring Raul Julia, that became an infamous flop, opening and closing within a week. But that didn't hold her back. In fact, it was during her breaks backstage listening to Joni Mitchell's Blue on repeat with Cara that Pura Fé began to figure out exactly what kind of songwriter she wanted to be.
In 1987, Pura Fé created Ulali, a First Nations' women's a cappella group that played and toured on its own but also collaborated with and supported a number of artists, including Robbie Robertson and the Indigo Girls. It was about 10 years later, following a chance encounter with a lap guitar, that Pura Fé began moving toward a radical reinvention of herself. She struck out on her own, dug deep into the blues, jazz and traditional Indigenous music she'd grown up with, and made the journey back to her ancestral lands in North Carolina. The songs seemed to erupt out of her. She was home.
Twenty years later, Pura Fé has never quite received the attention she deserves, and her music is ripe for a new appreciation. And, since she moved to Saskatoon a few years ago, who better to help CBC Music choose the essential Pura Fé music than Pura Fé?
Follow Your Heart's Desire
The first piece of music that came to Pura Fé's mind was her 2004 album, Follow Your Heart's Desire. But getting to that album, required a bit of a rewind so she could explain exactly how big a breakthrough the record was for her personally.
"We ended up doing the Winnipeg Folk Fest in '98 with Kelly Joe Phelps. I listened to him play on his lap slide, and it really spoke to me like nothing. And it brought me back to one of our chiefs, Leon Locklear, who passed away a couple years ago. He also played on his lap and I remember hearing him the first time, I was about 15, or 16 years old. And so that always stuck with me; the blues, for me, was very Indigenous. And people did not understand where I was coming from with that. And I'm like, 'Don't you hear it? Like, listen!'"
Pura Fé left New York for North Carolina around the same time as she was discovering the lap guitar, and those two events laid the foundation for a monumental shift in her life..
"Going home, to North Carolina, really, being on the land, everything as a community, everything my grandparents talked about, and the music and the sounds of my family singing. Standing on graveyards and fields where they were picking cotton, and where they had wars and, you know, way back and all of that just came right through me. And I'd say the album [Follow Your Heart's Desire] really emanated all of that. I picked up that slide guitar and it was like I used to play it in another lifetime before.
We got to the point where I didn't have to open for anyone. People were opening for me.- Pura Fé
"In three months time I had left my husband and my community, and moved into this place [in Chapel Hill] and, like, barely changed my clothes or showered. I just sat there with this guitar and I just focused. Then I went to [the record label, Music Maker] and said, 'I want to make an album.' They said, 'OK.'"
A year after the release of Follow Your Heart's Desire, a French label reached out to Music Maker "looking for a Native woman blues singer."
"I told the guy, 'Yeah, we have that.' [Laughs] They redistributed my album [and renamed it Tuscarora Nation Blues]. They loved it. And they toured me everywhere. And I worked in France for like — oh, I stopped touring about 2019. I just stopped. I had all kinds of different configurations of bands. I was always there doing television, and radio and big festivals. And we got to the point where I didn't have to open for anyone. People were opening for me."
'Going Home Stomp Dance'
"Going Home Stomp Dance" actually appears on Follow Your Heart's Desire, and it's a powerful song in part because of how Pura Fé chooses to be deliberate and specific in naming what it felt like to return to her ancestral lands.
"When I first went home, I went with my cousins. We were just finally going home, where our grandparents came from, and all of our mothers were sisters. So we went home and learned a lot and talked to so many elders. We went there to the town of Newton Grove [North Carolina], on the Neuse River, which is the Coharie, the little Coharie Creek, which comes in from the Neuse. That's our home and our people, and the people there — we're related to all of them just about, Our grandparents met in New York City and when we go two generations back in their families, they're from the exact same place, same roads, and then you go back some more, it's like, it's the same village."
Pura Fé's familial history is steeped in the violence of colonization and enslavement of her Black and Indigenous ancestors, as well as those who instigated the uprising of enslaved people. There was at least one generation of children taken from their Tuscarora parents and put into other homes throughout the town. Pura Fé says she doesn't know what they did with the adults. Her family's village was also on the Bentonville battleground, the site of the last Civil War battle.
"There's a lot of history. And that's what 'Going Home' is about: 'the tobacco fields, Trail of Tears, stolen people on stolen land.' [My cousin and I] were looking out at these fields and in the middle of a lot of these plantations, you'll see these tall cedar trees. And you'll notice that they're on mounds. These are slave graveyards. And so when we look out there we see our ancestors, and all their DNA and everything, just that whole tree connection of what is above is below and that whole vortex and connection. So we were going to visit those trees all the time, and leave songs and tobacco and prayers. When we got back in the car, and we just looked out there at the trees, and I said, 'Eric, you know what we are, we're stolen people on stolen land' and that's how the song began."
'Great Grandpah's Banjo'
"Great Grandpah's Banjo" appears on Pura Fé's 2009 album, Full Moon Rising. The album versioin is her favourite because the recording features Grammy Award-winning artist Rhiannon Giddens. But the song also holds a special place in Pura Fé's heart.
"When my grandmother was staying with [my cousin] Jen [Kreiserg, who's part of Ulali], she overheard our cassette. [laughs] and she told us, 'We used to sing songs, just like that. Only we used rattles.' When she said that, I started thinking about when we went home [to North Carolina] and visited, we brought her home with us and her Alzheimer's was at the beginning, so she remembered things like a child. She totally knew where she was and she would tell us things that she'd never told us before, and that whole connection for her and her family was the banjo. So that song was basically just honouring and it just came out, every time I went home to North Carolina until I moved there, the music just poured out.
"You know those Tibetan knives and they slam 'em into the ground and it releases something? That's what it was like. That's how it felt like for me when I stood on a graveyard or in a field that my family and my ancestors were a part of. I would stand there and all of a sudden, this stuff would just come out of me. All these songs and melodies and memories would pop out and all of a sudden I realized I'm a banjo! This is Grandpa's land.
"The Full Moon Rising album is my favourite version, because it's got Rhiannon Giddens and she's playing banjo all over my album. And when she came to sit down and play with me, it was like we went to that same place. It was like we were in another zone, another realm or something. And she comes from a community not too far from where my family's from, and my uncle Pete married into her community. So we have some ties. That whole album, and that song, is just channeling our ancestral lands and people."
Sacred Seed is the album title of Pura Fé's last (for now) studio release in 2015, but it's also the title track — and, it's a song that means a lot to Pura Fé..
"'Sacred Seed' comes from the Tuscarora version of the Iroquois or Haudenosaunee creation story of sky woman falling. It even uses the word 'eskanye,' which is a dance. When sky woman from upper world fell down to Earth, she was placed on top of a turtle's back. So when she was placed there, she was slipping and sliding, and going around and around, and that's what that word means, eskanye, shuffle around. And so she did that and the [turtle's] back grew. I use the word pangea, because in our story, that was the land, the only land there was in the body of water that was floating in space. So everything from sky world that she brought down with her: herself and being pregnant with twins — a serpent being impregnated her and that's why she was thrown out. Because there was no death or birth in the upper world, so they threw her out. So the song just talks about the sacred seed and memory of all time, and DNA, and it's just creation story. It's pretty much the same as every creation story."
This cover of Geoge Gershwin's classic jazz standard appears on Pura Fé's 2007 album, Hold the Rain. It's a sensuous, smouldering treatment, the kind of blues that twists your insides and sets your nerves on fire.
"I re-arranged it with my friends Danny Godinez and Farko Dosumov, my two amazing musician buddies out of Seattle. I grew up with that song because my mama sang it. And my mother sang with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. I went to a lot of her rehearsals and then went on tour with, with her. It was his sacred concert series, not his regular jazz. And he also was a part of jazz ministry with pastor John Garcia Gensel, who my family was very close to. He was a jazz minister at the jazz church. So that song ['Summertime], it's coming right out of that whole genre. I got exposed to hearing all those great people that would come in to play in his church, people like Miles Davis, [trumpeter] Joe Newman, [drummer Babatunde] Olatunji — there were so many musicians that would come in and play at the services. [My mom] sang it, sort of the [original] Porgy and Bess style with the operatic. I thought it was a beautiful song, but I don't sing like that! [Laughs] I sing more like the way my grandma would, but I loved it. And I said, 'We're going to do this different. I told Danny, 'This needs to be danced to.' And so we did."