Wade Fernandez educates about Native American music

On Friday, Feb. 21, musician Wade Fernandez performed a concert in the Nathan Marsh Pusey Room of the Warch Campus Center. He created a casual, collaborative space while playing a broad range of works.

Fernandez is a talented Menominee multi-instrumentalist who plays American Indian instruments as well as Western-style instruments. He plays various flutes with both American Indian and Western tuning systems and American Indian drums. Electric guitar was also featured heavily in the performance.

During the concert, Fernandez often displayed great skill by playing instruments simultaneously. At one memorable moment, he played two flutes simultaneously in his mouth. At other points, he created an electric loop of a line from his electric guitar that he then combined with other instruments.

While Fernandez did not perform exclusively American Indian music, all of the music that he played contained some element of American Indian culture. In the blues-rock song “Commodity Cheese Blues,” he sings about the demand for cheese at the reservation surplus commodity shop, where the American Indians living on the reservation can buy the unwanted, mostly unhealthy food rejected by the military. Although Fernandez sings about cheese, he also sings about poverty and the way in which those on the reservation approach life with “laughter and fun.” For those curious, there’s a music video on YouTube.

American Indians experience more health problems and earlier deaths than the general population due to poverty, lack of access to healthy food and many other factors, most connected to the centuries of oppression they have experienced. Fernandez made this widespread tragedy personal with an affecting spoken word and drum piece about his grandmother, who died at age 55 from diabetes.

Family figured in other pieces of Fernandez’s as well. He performed a lullaby that he created after the birth of his first child when he wouldn’t sleep. As he tells it, he began to tap a pattern on the baby’s back as he held him and sang a song in Menominee. It worked — the baby finally slept. He used the lullaby with all of his other four children and even recorded himself singing the lullaby so that the babies could fall asleep without him.

Fernandez incorporates Menominee language into many of his songs. He says that he includes the language partly because it’s going extinct — there are only seven native speakers of Menominee left in the world, and it’s one of the hardest languages to learn. He hopes that by hearing Menominee, his listeners will help keep the language alive. Fernandez believes that people remember best that which they set to music, so he made the audience sing along in Menominee during his performances.

The concert included other elements of audience participation as well. Fernandez strongly believes in the value of musical improvisation and collaborated with Lawrence musicians to create an improvised performance. He believes that one shouldn’t have preconceptions about what will happen, both in life and in music. He doesn’t even really believe in practicing — he says that he doesn’t “practice” playing flute.

When Fernandez first picked up a flute, he couldn’t make music come out of it. The elders told him that it wasn’t the right time, so he waited two years to play again, when he was able to make music come out of the flute. Fernandez talked about how he would watch and listen to the river as a boy and observe how it moves steadily and simply goes around any obstacles like boulders. In his view, you have to be like a river, whether you’re a musician or not: You can’t fight the flow, and you should recognize that boulders might be blessings.

Fernandez considers music-making a much more natural process than most classical musicians do. Nonetheless, he invited Lawrence student musicians to improvise with him at the end of the concert. The motley assortment included piano, jaw harp, violin, cello, trombone and saxophone. The result was sometimes beautiful, sometimes strange and always authentically spontaneous. Even if it wasn’t perfect, as Fernandez says, you shouldn’t throw out anything because you never know if it will be valuable to someone else. The act of creation is always worthwhile.