The mellifluous timbre of a flute will drift through the air at Unity Park Saturday, lifted up by the sound of violins and an unusual accompaniment: Native American drums and singers telling the story of indigenous people.
The concert is a stop on the Dakota Music Tour, a one-of-a-kind event that weaves traditional orchestral music together with traditional Indian music.
Performing on the Dakota Music Tour is the Mankato Symphony Orchestra along with Maza Kute, a renowned Dakota drum group from Santee, Nebraska.
The groups were brought together by a man who is the perfect blend of both those worlds, the son of an English mother and a Mohican father, who spent his life finding the balance between those cultures within him.
For Brent Michael Davids, fusing the two worlds of music together for performance was not an easy task, but one that he believes bridges the gap between cultures in a way few people can.
Davids grew up in Chicago, where his father was an electrical engineer and his mother was a music teacher. But his summers were filled with the rich culture of the Mohican tribe at Stockbridge Munsee where his father’s side descended from. Those divergent experiences allowed him to integrate different cultures into his life, and into the music that began to come from within him.
Since his early days under his mother’s tutelage at the piano, Davids has earned international acclaim as a composer for the concert hall, theater and ballet. His works also appear in film and television, and he has been dubbed one of the nation’s most celebrated choral composers.
But even for someone with the experience of Davids, folding Native music and classical music together in a composition relied on all the musical expertise he had.
Unlike pieces that layer one group over another, Davids’ compositions are constructed together, but conveying that construction was another matter.
Orchestral performers rely exclusively on written music, singers like Maza Kute are trained through oral tradition. Davids had to transcribe and redevelop the Native songs being written into his works so the classical musicians could read it. Though the original native songs were familiar to the Maza Kute, Davids had to re-teach the redeveloped compositions to them using audio files.
In the end they create a sound together that has many dimensions and the ability to convey the Native American story in a way that is dramatic, beautiful, and unique.
Davids originally composed the works to be performed Saturday as the sound track for Bright Circle, a 90-minute documentary about the deep impact Native American athletes have had on American sports.
The documentary follows the Native American story from the time young children were taken from home and sent to boarding schools around 1880 and beyond.
Those were dark days for the culture as they were stripped of their language, their traditions, even their families under a philosophy that white settlers had to, as Davids said, “kill the Indian to save the man.”
As such, Davids’ soundtrack is sometimes dark, though throughout the score also resonates with pride and hope as the characters within the documentary attained personal and cultural moments of satisfaction.
When it comes to composing the score for Native American films, Davids believes Native composers have an authentic viewpoint to bring to the work, mostly, he said, because they understand the culture.
Davids has watched many movies featuring Native American themes where the score was obviously written by a non-Native, as cultural mistakes are plentiful in such efforts.
For example, in Dances With Wolves, the score is ominous as the party heads out for a buffalo hunt. “The scene is dark and scary,” Davids said, “when for Native Americans it is a family thing, a communal activity that is very uplifting.”
Indigenous people had a relationship with the buffalo that transcended European understanding, even today it seems, and if a Native American composer had written the score it would have been entirely different.
Being a composer allows Davids the opportunity to walk in both worlds easier than some.
He looks Native, he said, so blending in as someone who is half white would have been difficult. “I had to confront that, figure out how to integrate that into my life,” he said.
The Dakota Music Tour is an expression of that, but it is more.
It is an example of how people from all lineages can integrate their many diverse parts into their lives, something more and more necessary as society becomes homogenized with many races.
And the Dakota Music Tour is a healing event, turning over the microphone at the end of each performance to Dakota people who need to talk about what has happened to their people, and what they hope for now.
“It was designed as a way for Dakota people to have a voice,” Davids said. “Minnesota was founded on genocide. No one wants to go back and look at it, but they are ignoring the Dakota people if they won’t.”
The music brings people to the event, but the healing comes from the dialog that happens, Davids said, kind of like the Mary Poppins saying, he said. “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,” he said. “The concert is the sugar.”