Buffalo Blood is the collaborative work of three American musicians and a Scot who set out to capture some of the legend and history of Native Americans, victims of a genocide which rivals that of the Nazi’s against the Jews. The collective – Dean Owens, Neilson Hubbard, Joshua Britt and Audrey Spillman – were drawn to the project after Owens, a man from Leith, raised on cowboy movies but lured to the plight of the Native Americans after visiting their sacred lands, mentioned a batch of songs he had written as a result of his fascination, to Hubbard. Hubbard, a Grammy nominated producer and, along with Britt and Spillman, a member of The Orphan Brigade, a band who seek out unusual recording opportunities, got on board and the newly formed quartet decided to collaborate in the writing and recording of what became Buffalo Blood. A project long in the making, it eventually saw all four decamp to New Mexico, along with sound engineer and photographer, Jim DeMain, to record the album in several iconic locations. Aside from the recording, they captured the outdoor performances on film as they followed what is known as the trail of tears, the historical forced marches of Native Americans from their ancestral lands to reservations. The resulting album is heavy on atmosphere with ambient sounds trickling into the songs, many of which reflect the arid conditions of the New Mexico desert.
There’s no narrative as such although some numbers mention the likes of Custer and Crazy Horse (Land of Broken Promises) while others portray the repressive regime which tried to wipe out their culture as on Carry The Feather, inspired by the habit of forbidding Native Indian children to speak their own language at schools which taught a white curriculum. There are a couple of mood pieces. The excellent Ten Killer Ferry Lake (named after a reservoir on Cherokee land) opens the album and sets the scene perfectly combining a ghost dance like lament and mournful whistling. The whistling (by Owens) returns on Ghosts Of Wild Horses, a tune redolent of spaghetti western soundtracks, a sly nod perhaps to what, for most of us, was our first exposure to the American west via the movies. Whatever, it’s another strongly suggestive piece of music casting up images of sun blasted parched lands, bleached bones and the unique strangeness of the frontier. Similarly, Buffalo Thunder, a wordless chant with ambient wind sounds throughout, transports the listener to late night campfires among the tepees.
There’s an inherent sense of drama throughout the album. War Among The Nations is portentous, warning of calamity ahead and Reservations bristles with indignity singing of the white men’s lies. Comanche Moon captures the fury of the tribes as they fight back against the white man who considers them “all just savages,” while Buffalo Blood is a powerful number which rings out with a fierce sense of pride amplified by the native chant which surrounds Owen’s strident vocal delivery. There’s a resigned air to Daughter Of The Sun, White River and Bones, songs which reflect the sense of loss and identity suffered by the Native Americans while Land Of Broken Promises just about sums up the series of injustices dealt to them as treaties were torn up and they were moved further westward.
Throughout the album the quartet perform excellently. The primary sound is of acoustic guitars and mandolin with percussion and keyboards filling out some of the numbers. The harmonies are wonderful as the band inhabit the spirituality of well-worn chants brilliantly. Owens says that as they recorded in the desert, under clear skies and amidst stunning red rock formations, they felt the presence of the spirits which permeate the locations. They capture this perfectly on Bones, an excellent song with a mournful organ base which is suffused with suffering and a simmering anger. Overall, Buffalo Blood is a bold venture which sets out to portray a particular injustice but it burns with a contemporary relevance as one realises that the plight of the Native Americans is not far removed from the forced migrations and exploitation of indigenous people which continues to this day. From the pipeline protests at Standing Rock to refugees fleeing brutality in Africa and South America, the story continues.
Buffalo Blood is released on February 15th as a download and, in the UK, a double vinyl album. £1 from the sale of each vinyl album will be donated to the Redhawk Native American Arts Council , an organisation which is dedicated to educating the general public about Native American heritage through song, dance, theater, works of art and other cultural forms of expression.
Celtic Connections will present the live world premiere of Buffalo Blood in performance tonight at The Mitchell Theatre. Details are here while the project’s website is here. For more information on the project check out this interview.