Robert Mirabal

Native American Renaissance Man

By Jay W. Sharp

“…my music is informed by the ceremonial music that I’ve heard all of my life,” said Robert Mirabal in his biography, posted on his web site.  “What I create comes out of my body and soul, in a desire to take care of the spirits of the earth.”

Musical and Spiritual Roots

Mirabal has drawn his musical and spiritual inspiration from his northern New Mexico home, the ancient and fabled Taos Pueblo, 7200 feet high on the western flanks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  Growing up, he saw the splendor of nature in the forested slopes and snow-crested peaks of his people’s original range.  He experienced traditions and ceremonies rooted in the ways of the Anasazi, ancestral Puebloan people who left their cultural imprint in the Colorado Plateau before they migrated southeastward to the upper Rio Grande drainage basin.  He spoke Tiwa, a dialect of the Uto-Aztecan family of languages once heard from the American Southwest to Guatemala and a pot of linguistic glue that now helps bind and unify the people of Taos.  He learned the religious heritage and history of his pueblo – already centuries old when visited in the early 1540’s by Hernan Alvarado, a captain in the Coronado expedition – from voices of tribal elders, the Catholic mission church, and the Taos Indian school.  He became imbued with the melodies and rhythms of the flutes, drums, rattles, chants and dances of tribal rituals and celebrations at the sacred Blue Lake in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, within the secreted walls of the pueblo’s ceremonial chambers (the kivas), and in the community spaces of the pueblo plaza.  “If you live a traditional life,” Mirabal once said, “you see things differently, spiritually and musically.”

A Voyage of Discovery

Mirabal discovered music at the Indian school in Taos.  “They had a band there and I learned clarinet, sax, piano, drums, anything I could get my hands on,” he told Indian Artists Magazine music editor j. poet, who interviewed him for an article, “Robert Mirabal: Singing the Truth.”  Mirabal discovered the flute – or, perhaps the flute discovered him – at age 18.  He bought his first flute – an instrument made by “Adam Turjillo, a man in the pueblo from my grandpa’s society” – with money borrowed from his grandmother.  “They say the flute chooses you, and it certainly changed my life,” he told j. poet. 

Mirabal, with his instrument and voice, developed a cadre of fans eager to hear his music.  “I hooked up with a guy who owned a studio and asked him if I could record my flute there and he said ‘yeah, here’s what it will cost.’  I had some money of my own, but I needed more and my grandma gave it to me,” Mirabal said in his Internet site. 

His career found wings.  Within a few years, he had composed and recorded for several labels, including, for example, Warner Western and Silver Wave.  He gave performances not only across the United States – electrifying audiences from the Kennedy Center in Washington, D. C. and the Brooklyn Academy of music in New York to the Cowboy Poetry Celebration in Elko, Nevada – but also across Europe, Russia and Japan.  He won high admiration for his work:   

 …exquisitely nuanced flute playing…captivating birdlike melodies…

New York Times

 Spiritual.  Comical.  Visual.  Historical.  Modern.  Sensual.  Poetic.  Musical.  Fantastical.  Spooky.  Rockin’.  Haunting.

Robert Mirabal’s performance Friday night at the Weidner Center was no mere concert.  It was an event. Warren Gerds, “Mirabal Magnificent in Sweeping Show at Weidner,”

Green Bay [Wisconsin] Press Gazette

 [Mirabal’s] program offered both a history lesson and hope for the future to young people of all backgrounds as Mirabal urged them to embrace pride and responsibility rather than blame problems on others.

Roxanne Moore Saucier, “Mirabal Concert Enchanting,”

Bangor [Maine] Daily News

…Robert plays with the noble purpose of honoring the land, his family, his ancestors and his tribe…

Red Earth Records Internet Site

Award-winning Native American flutist and composer Robert Mirabal and his band…absolutely mesmerized a large audience at the Alberta Bair Theater last night…

 …[In an earlier performance during the day] Mirabal easily accomplished what many elementary school teachers might consider the impossible—his hauntingly invigorating flute thoroughly silenced an entire auditorium full of excited, over-amped children.  He mixed his sobering, mysterious melodies with light-hearted humor, even inviting a couple of kids onstage, bringing squeals of delight from their peers in the audience.

But nothing in the early show could’ve prepared me for the raw power, the rich texture and the phenomenal exuberance of spirit of the two-and-a-half-hour evening show...

Mirabal will no doubt leave a musical legacy that defines, preserves and communicates the essence of his culture—music that speaks of and for something that lives within each of us.

John Potter, “Mystical Music Captivates Audience,”

 Billings [Montana] Gazette

As Mirabal composed and recorded for various labels, performed across the United States and in other countries, and met with other musicians, he discovered new instruments, new rhythms, new melodic directions.  He grew creatively and professionally.  He studied Japanese Taiko drumming, West African and Haitian rhythms, Celtic music, rock, blues and hip hop, according to his Internet site.  “For a while [in New York City], I was in a multi-culti band,” he told j. poet.  “The keyboard player was from Haiti, the drummer was from Cape Verde, the guitarist from Senegal, and we were surrounded on all sides by hip hop…” 

He would weave these influences into an integrated whole, expressed with his band, Rare Tribal Mob, through instruments as diverse as the cello, the Australian Aboriginal didgeridoo and the electric guitar.  As said in the Mirabal site, “After half a dozen well-regarded flute albums, Mirabal [had taken] his music in a brilliant new direction… …he delved into popular music – rock, folk, hip-hop, African, techno and more – and imbued it with his own strong Native American perceptions.”  As he has explored new musical directions, Mirabal has never forgotten his Puebloan roots.  “There’s always a flute player in every tribe.  I never would have guessed it at the time, but I’ve become that flute player,” Mirabal said in the Red Earth Records Internet Site. 

He acknowledges that his creative and professional growth have complicated his life.  “I’m usually a loner—I like to go off into the hills when I’m composing…  When you’re a solo artist,” he said in his Internet site, “you only have to be responsible for yourself and your mistakes don’t impact a whole bunch of other people.  With these shows [with his band], I have to be more aware—the consequences are much larger.  I’m more like a beaver building a dam, making water where there was none, water that can spread out and nurture many things—plants, trees, animals and humans…” 

His work has propelled him to national recognition.  As the Native Roots and Rhythms Internet site said, “‘Miramaniacs,’ Robert’s devoted fans, drive long distances to see him and his troupe perform. Robert has become one of Native America’s most dynamic and best selling artists…”  According to the Miramania1 Internet site, Mirabal has received awards from the National Endowments of the Arts and grants from Meet the Composer, Inc.  He won a fellowship with the New York Japanese Foundation, giving him the opportunity to study with the Japanese High Court musicians.  He has won the New York Dance and Performance “Bessie” in 1992, the first Native American to receive the prestigious award.  Additionally, Mirabal has won a number of Native American Music Awards, including the top prizes for Record of the Year, Songwriter of the Year and Artist of the Year. 

For all his success, Mirabal would discover that music alone could not contain his creative energies.  He has authored a book, A Skeleton of a Bridge, a collection of his poetry, prose and short stories.   He has contributed to documentary motion pictures, including two narrated by film star Robert Redford.  He has made Native American flutes so finely crafted that several have been acquired by the Smithsonian for the museum’s permanent collection.  Still in his 30’s, Mirabal has become a true Renaissance Man, transcending traditional cultural and artistic boundaries. 

First Love

For all his diverse interests, Mirabal has always kept his primary focus on music, exploring new dimensions in styles, sounds and harmonies—an artistic course imbedded in his albums.  Early in his career, he stayed close to his Puebloan traditions, calling on the Native American flute, the drum and his voice to give musical expression to his work.  As his creativity matured and flourished, he began to synthesize popular, rock, folk, African and other musical genres – always underlaid with his Native American persona and often visualized through dance and imagery – to fulfill his musical vision, both in his concerts and in his albums.  His early albums, recorded in the mid-1990’s, included “Land,” “Song Carrier,” “Warrior Magician,” and “Mirabal.”  His more recent albums include “Taos Tales,” “Indians, Indians,” and, perhaps the best known, “Music From a Painted Cave.” Click Here to hear some samples of his music.

“I think I’m going to do what I want to do,” he told Richard Chang for the article “Music That Aims to Fill the Soul,” Canku Ota (Many Paths, an Online Newsletter).  “People are going to find it.  As a genre, I can’t say where [Native American music] is going to go.  We all need to be very honest about our dark sides, and very honest about the sides that are very beautiful.  We need to be respectful to ourselves.

“I’m always experimenting, exploring that part of myself, where my limitations are.  All things are a learning path.” 

Quoted by the Red Earth Records Internet Site, Mirabal said, “I offer my work as a healing for the human spirit and a remembrance of why we are all here together.”

 

 


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