More than 2,800 Native and indigenous dancers filled the floor of the University of New Mexico Pit during the April 27 grand entry of the Gathering of Nations, which calls itself “North America’s Biggest PowWow.”
It was the PowWow’s most colorful and most staggering dance, with tribes, pueblos and indigenous communities from around the world representing in full regalia—but different dances (official and not) were everywhere during the weekend’s festivities.
The night before, for instance, Don Martin and DJ Breakaway hosted “Tribal Reggae Splash” at the Moonlight Lounge. Martin encouraged SFR to attend the event in order to witness reggae’s popularity among different Native cultures.
The Santa Fe DJ’s recommendation comes with some authority. In an email conversation, Martin acknowledges, “I might not be Native myself.” But, he believes his reggae outfit “Brotherhood Sound has played in more pueblos than all other DJs and acts.”
Brotherhood Sound System features a revolving cast of guest DJs like Breakaway and is a staple of dancehall reggae music.
“Most people that come out to our shows are from the pueblos,” Breakaway tells SFR. He estimates that particular crowd to have been at about 150, and despite the influx of PowWow participants, he says he was not surprised to see many of the “familiar faces that come to all the reggae dances we do.”
Like Martin, Breakaway puts it all in perspective: “I’m from Picuris and Cochiti Pueblos,” he says. “I went to the [Santa Fe] Indian School. That’s when I started hearing reggae—from other students and my peers who were pueblo.”
“There’s a lot of different types of reggae,” he points out. “A lot of people who come to our dances from the pueblos are younger, and they like dancehall, but they still listen to the roots. The older generation is not as into dancehall.”
Besides being explicitly made for dancing, dancehall differs from roots in that, like hip-hop, it sometimes employs prerecorded tracks called riddims that lyricists (such as Capleton and Buju Banton) sing over. Roots tends to be more traditional and band-centric (think Steel Pulse and Israel Vibration).
“I really identify with the way dancehall makes people move,” Breakaway says. “It’s a little more rough and rugged, a little more raw. [But] the music is for dancing. It’s made that way.”
The danceability of the music is just part of why Breakaway believes “pueblo communities connect with reggae music.”
“It’s a combination of two elements: the message and the sound,” he says. “There’s a story in reggae; there’s a struggle; there are uplifting lyrics.” These things create “a connection for the pueblo people, who have persevered and struggled a lot.”
When it comes to sound, he says, “In reggae, there’s a lot of heavy bass lines, instrumentally deep and rhythmic, and heavy drums,” which speak to “communities who feel like the drum is their heartbeat and is important in their singing and dancing.”
Naturally, these communities relate to reggae not just through listening but also through playing the music.
The most popular live Native American reggae groups in the state include the long-established Native Roots from Albuquerque and the younger Walatowa Massive (pictured above) from Jemez. Both played at the Gathering of Nations and merit a story of their own, but the experience of hearing live music versus dancehall in clubs is different enough that, as Breakaway says with mild puzzlement, “There’s not that much crossover between audiences going to both.”
Those left wanting more don’t have to wait till next year’s PowWow, as plenty of Brotherhood Sound System shows are scheduled in Santa Fe and beyond, like the Collective Reggae Party slated for May 18.
“That’s one thing about Don Martin,” Breakaway says. “Even though reggae music in the mainstream has gone up and down as far as popularity, he continues to push new music, gets new people coming out and keeps supporting the scene.”
The Collective Reggae Party
Feat. Brotherhood Sound System
9 pm Saturday, May 18. $5.
The Underground, 200 W San Francisco St.,