March, April, June 2019
Launched in New York City back in 1987, the Ulali Trio brought new life to the First Nation vocal tradition before going in limbo in 2005, when founding member Pura Fe’ started a solo career that brought her fame all over the world, especially in Europe. But political and cultural issues were too important for Ulali to disappear. The original trio has recently grown into a quartet under a new identity, Ulali Project. Rising from its ashes in 2014, it took a prominent part in the People’s Climate March in New York City that year, paying a moving tribute to the resistance movement of First Nations in the context of global warming. The Ulali Project is the reunion of four singers of Tuscarora origins: Pura Fe’ Crescioni, Jennifer Kreisberg, Charly Lowry, and Layla Rose Locklear. Concerned with preserving the First Nations heritage of drums and vocal harmonies, it tackles contemporary issues with a commendable power of conviction.
It took them ten years. Ten years before Pura Fe’ and her cousin Jennifer Kreisberg could sing together again. “Bringing the group back to life was unavoidable, says the former. For the many reasons that give our group its strength: our political and cultural agenda, our role as women.”
Until its original members went their separate ways in 2005, the Ulali Trio had deeply renovated the First Nation vocal tradition. The group was born in 1987. Although rooted in the Tuscarora Indian tradition—a First Nations people originally from North Carolina—Pura Fe’ Crescioni was raised in New York City where she played jazz, until the day she was asked to open for the recently founded American Indian Dance Theatre. Before accepting the offer, Pura Fe’ altered her program, judging it was ill adapted to the atmosphere of a First Nations pow-wow. Hiring Soni Moreno (a singer of Maya, Apache and Yaqui origins) and two percussionists for the occasion, she sang three personal compositions dealing with both traditional themes and contemporary issues. The group, spurred on by their success, rapidly joined the American Indian Community House in New York City. Performing under the name Pura Fe’ with three vocalists and four percussionists, they gave their first recital of note at the Womad Festival in Toronto, selling 200 cassettes in less than an hour at the end of the concert.
Many performances followed in the wake of this 1989 triumph: Woodstock in 1994, Atlanta in 1996 as part of the summer Olympics, as well as various international tours. The group’s pre-blues music soon became a favorite with First Nations audiences (Pura Fe’ won’t use the expression Native Americans, saying her people were present on the continent long before it was ever called America).
The group evolved with time and became a trio when Soni Moreno and Pura Fe’ hired a 15-year-old cousin of the latter, Jennifer Kreisberg. At odds with First Nations traditions that often prevent women from playing percussion, the three singers adopted drums and rattles. “We opened a new path for women. Many female groups continue to follow our example to this day,” confirms Pura Fe’. In 1994, Robbie Robertson approached the Trio. Anxious to reconnect with his Mohawk roots, 18 years after disbanding his legendary outfit, The Band, Robertson was trying to find original music for a documentary entitled The Native Americans. He fell in love with the trio instantaneously, urging them to find a new stage identity. Pura Fe’, Soni and Jennifer opted for Ulali—both the name of a famous Tuscaroran singer of old, and an Indian onomatopoeia for the wood thrush and its easily recognizable U-La-Li song.
The Ulali Trio was left in limbo in 2005, after Pura Fe’ left New York City and resettled in North Carolina where her ancestors once resided (she now lives in the Canadian North). She then started a successful solo career, guitar in hand, with the help of the Music Maker Relief Foundation, making her name famous in Europe. Nine years later, Pura Fe’ and Jennifer realized they missed the thrill of sharing vocal harmonies. Ulali rose from its ashes under a new name, the Ulali Project, with the addition of two vocalists, Charly Lowry and Layla Rose Locklear.
The quartet gave their introductory performance in April 2014 at the River People Music & Culture Festival in Pembroke, North Carolina. More recently, a major event put the Project in the limelight. On September 21, 2014, as part of the People’s Climate March that gathered 300,000 people in the streets of New York City, the Ulali Project were propelled right up to the front of the demonstration. They sang the “Idle No More” hymn as a symbol of the fight of the First Nations for the preservation of their lands. Pura Fe’, a tireless activist, argues that this sole event validated the rebirth of Ulali, in the name of First Nations and others: “I don’t see myself as an ambassador, but some people say that’s what I am.”
For the first time in the history of Ulali, all of its members are Tuscaroras. “This way, we can concentrate on the specific ways our tribe has always expressed itself, yesterday as well as today. It reinforces our artistic and political coherence,” says Pura Fe’. The musical idiom of the Tuscaroras is highly melodic. Played to fast drum patterns, it uses a pentatonic scale that announces the blues, with vocal harmonies very similar to those of gospel. The lyrics of the Project are powerfully militant, as usual with Pura Fe’. They deal with such issues as global warming, drug and alcohol abuse inside the tribes, the murder and disappearance of many First Nations women and children. Once the victim of genocide, First Nations are currently driven out of the land they still own when natural resources (oil, uranium, wood) excite the greed of determined global operators. Thus, for political and cultural reasons, it is essential that the voices of Pura Fe’, Jennifer, Charly and Layla be heard as far, and as long, as possible.
06/04/2019 / FR / Carhaix / Espace Glenmor