Blackfire: (Silence) is a Weapon

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by Sandra Hale Schulman
News From Indian Country

Navajo punk/traditional group Blackfire is pulling a lot of double duty lately. Their last release was a DualDisc with a CD and DVD of their world travels.

Their new release is a 2 CD set that shows off their dual alliances of hard-core punk music on one CD and the traditional Dine music they perform with the father Jones Bennally on the second CD.

Blackfire is Clayson, Jeneda and Klee Bennally. Born into the heart of a political land dispute area on Black Mesa in the Navajo Nation, this family’s powerful music reflects the hopes, freedoms, and barriers of today’s world. It also bridges the past with the future in a way that no other group has done.

“This album crosses labels and genres in a way that people aren’t used to,” says Jeneda. “It is very separate styles but to us it is a whole concept that encompasses what our life is.”

Their life comprises traditional Native American, Punk-Rock and “Alter-Native” with strong sociopolitical messages about government oppression, relocation of Indigenous people, eco-cide, genocide, domestic violence and human rights.

A visit to the sprawling Bennally home in Flagstaff last year had my head reeling with the musical equipment, film editing room, Native artifacts, rugs, feathers, bowls of sweetgrass, statues of Joey Ramone, a cornfield in the front yard and horses, sheep and chickens in the back. Jeneda’s sleek red Mustang sat parked next to a pick up truck and the family’s huge touring van. A friendly mutty pooch greeted everyone with a bark and a wag.

A lively dinner discussion revolved around world politics, filmmaking, vegan meals, and my scary night I spent at the haunted Hotel Monte Vista downtown. (A vase of flowers went flying across the room at 4 am.) Jeneda gave me a strand of ghost beads that brought on a quieter second night. We also rubbed her growing belly as she was 8 months pregnant at the time. She went out on the Warped Tour a few weeks later in sweltering heat slapping her bass daily. Baby Dyatihi (hummingbird in Dine) is now about 8 months old.

“I’m no expert yet on motherhood,” laughs Jeneda, “but I already feel a bigger sense of urgency to make the world a better place for my daughter. At 8 months, she is already into technology – grabbing the remote controls, the phones, mikes, and anything else electronic she can crawl over to. It’s a beautiful thing to be a parent, and this baby is going on tour with us next month overseas for at least 2 months.”

Dyatihi gurgles on the CD’s opening prologue, the voice of the next generation of Blackfires.

“It was a real honor to work with producer Ed Stasium (Ramones, Living Color, Talking Heads) on this record,” says Klee, the lead singer, guitarist and album artwork designer. “He is a wonderful person and brought to life our songs in a surprising way, he really pushed us to beyond what we thought we were capable of. This was the first time we spent so much time on a CD since we did it all ourselves.”

“The main issues we care and write about are environmental and social issues with integrity,” adds Clayson. “It’s the main challenges we face as Indigenous people.”

Klee just had a major victory with his film on the threat to the SnowBowl in the San Francisco Peaks in Flagstaff. The sacred mountain was being threatened by a company that wanted to spew it with snow made from recycled wastewater, an unacceptable hazard for the animals and plants that the Navajo rely on.

He produced a film that showed the dangers and hypocrisy of the politicians involved; it screened at several major festivals nationwide. A recent ruling declared the plan to be an environmental threat and has been scrapped.

blackfirephoto.jpg The albums artwork is an integral part of the story, as it can be read in several different ways. Klee collaborated with artist Tristan Ahtone on the fold out made with 80 percent recycled materials and no plastic. A die-cut reveals the Blackfire logo on the inside, while photos of traditionally dressed Natives ride through a post-nuclear wasteland. A 12-page booklet accompanies each CD. The CDs are printed with the two sides of Blackfire – in their rocker gear and in their traditional Navajo regalia.

Some of the pictures on the inside booklet montage were taken at the 14-acre South Central farm in Los Angeles, a place Klee spent some time in. At South Central, Mexican families had been growing cornfields there for years to sustain their families and businesses. The government eventually wanted to sell it, a resistance camp was formed, but the powers that be won and the field was bulldozed and paved over.

“This album is all integrated,” says Klee. “We are torn between the pages – literally – over what to carry forward and what needs to be left behind. What will sustain a hundred years from now? What is our past and our future? I think the traditional songs are maybe even more important for kids to hear than the rock songs, but they both speak of the same things – respect for the earth and society, remember your roots. We truly do practice what we preach from using recycled paper to carrying our own solar powered generators on tour to use onstage. Our next step is to get a corn oil/bio-diesel bus.”

Some of songs on the record are new, some have been works in progress for a few years. As this is the bands 2nd full-length album, they had about a 4 year period to work up the material. Guests on the record include Cyril Neville – who moved to Austin after his home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina – and Matt Lavelle, a trumpet and bass clarinet player and one of the bright lights in today’s avant-garde jazz scene.

The album release is being supported with a May-July European tour, August-October U.S. tour with dates in Canada and Mexico. There is an upcoming special on NPR and a video for the song “Overwhelming.” For now the record is available only online and at their shows.

Blackfire played their first show in 1989. Since then they have toured national and internationally, with countless (literally) U.S. tours, 10 European tours, treks to Canada, Mexico and even twice to the sub-Saharan deserts of Africa. They only play all ages venues, whether concerts, festivals or clubs.

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