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Tribal music documentary premieres Saturday
Quechan filmmaker Daniel Golding is using modern technology to preserve some very old music.
Golding's documentary “Songs of the Colorado,” which premieres Saturday, spotlights the traditional songs of American and Mexican tribes of the Southwest who speak the Yuman language.
For two years, Golding traveled to interview and film lead singers of various tribes. And for the first time, lead singers from those tribes gathered to discuss common issues such as loss of language and the effects the loss had on learning the songs.
“The Yuman language family is made up of tribes along the Colorado (River) that speak a similar dialect,” he said.
About 10 different Yuman-speaking tribes, including the Quechan and Cocopah, are part of a larger group of speakers of Hokan, which is the oldest living language in North America, Golding said.
Although the language is estimated to be anywhere from 12,000 to 30,000 years old, younger tribe members have not been learning it, and the elders who speak it are slowing passing away. That leaves the language in danger of being lost, Golding explained.
To spark interest in reviving the language, he began documenting the traditional songs of the Yuman-speaking people, with grant funding obtained by Quechan elder and lead singer Preston Arrow-Weed.
“The songs are all sung in the language, so if you're not learning and picking up the language, then you won't be able to understand the songs,” Golding said. “You could sing them phonetically, but there are actually words telling stories...”
He shared his goals for the documentary.
“Our thoughts are if you can show this to the different communities, maybe it will spark an interest among the young people … and maybe they'll want to start learning the language and pass the language on to their kids.”
The songs not only preserve the language but also the native stories of creation and migration.
“I think we're kind of unique in the sense that our songs in the song cycles that they sing tell a story. And usually, the story begins when the sun goes down and you take all night to sing it, or tell that story, and so it finishes when the sun comes up the next morning. I don't know of any other tribes that do that in North America, that have that style of singing.”
The main portion of the documentary was filmed at Arrow-Weed's property on the Quechan Reservation.
“We shot there for two days and had singers from the different places come up and meet there and share some of their knowledge,” Golding said. “Toward the afternoon, it was cultural sharing, so each member was able to get up and perform for a little while and share some of their songs. That was nice because I'm not sure if some of the people here realize we're related to some of the tribes down in Mexico.”
A portion of the film was also shot at Santa Catalina, a small village in Baja California, Mexico.
“They had a fiesta going on. We filmed down there for two days — some song cycles nobody sings anymore, so they're being lost.”
A song cycle, he explained, is one entire performance that is sung from sundown to sunup.
“So there's about 300 or so different songs within an entire cycle that tell a story. That's why it's so unique that these lead singers have dedicated their entire lives to learning these songs and are able to remember them, for one, and then to perform them.”
Local lead singers featured in the documentary include Arrow-Weed, Quechan Tribe elder Vernon Smith, and Dale Phillips, vice chairman of the Cocopah Indian Tribe.
After filming for two years, Golding has spent the past several months cutting over 40 hours of footage down to an hourlong documentary. That‘s the stage where he always develops what he calls a love-hate relationship with the film: “At first I hate it, then slowly I begin to love it and finally get something out of it.”
Earlier this week he was still putting the finishing touches on the documentary, which will premiere Saturday at 6 p.m. at the Quechan Community Center, 604 Picacho Road, Winterhaven.
After the screening, the audience will be treated to food and song performances. But “it won't be an all-nighter,” Golding said, chuckling. The event, which is free to the public, will wind down at around 10 p.m.
Next, a decision will be made as to how to distribute the documentary, said the award-winning filmmaker whose work has previously been screened at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival.
Though he always thinks he'll never embark on another film project once one is finally finished, Golding's next film is already in the works.
“I just got funding from PBS to do research and development on the linguist, J.P. Harrington, who in his lifetime had compiled over a million pages of handwritten notes on the different (native) languages in California. But nobody knew he had done all this work until after he died.”
Some tribes had lost their languages, but Harrington's notes are bringing the languages back from extinction, Golding said.
For more information about Golding's films, visit his website at www.hokanmedia.com.