Ehren Kee Natay, a 31 year-old Kewa/Dine´ artist from Santa Fe makes it clear his purpose, no matter his artistic mode, is always connection; to bring people together through the drum (his primary instrument), through dance, and through the arts.
While this article focuses on Natay as a musician, he is vastly talented in just about every creative arena imaginable. In addition to being a singer and drummer, he is a dancer, painter, muralist, jewelry maker, he’s done multimedia collaborations with The Center for Contemporary Arts, as well as taught several semesters at The Institute of American Indian Arts as an adjunct professor. By the time this article goes to press, Natay will have also participated in his first Albuquerque Comic Con.
When I ask him to choose from his vast list of inspirational musicians. “I for sure have to tag my grandfather, Ed Lee Natay,” Ehren says with little hesitation. Ed Natay was a traditional singer, well known in Navajo country; often heard on the Gallup radio station in the 1950s, the first Native American to be recorded and played on the radio, the first artist to sign with Canyon Records in 1951 (which produces and distributes exclusively Native American music). “His voice—you can hear influence from Nat King Cole and Sinatra—you can hear those crooners, but he’s singing all traditional,” Ehren explains further. “I’ll always listen to my grandfather and his songs and try to match his skill.”
Ehren plays a song his grandfather learned from his grandmother’s Pueblo in Santo Domingo. Ed Natay has changed the words to protect the sacredness of it, but the rhythm and spirit remain. “To me, he kept it alive, and shared it between other tribes,” Ehren says, leading to another point. “Adaptation—it’s key.”
In all of his work, Ehren has done what his grandfather has done: adapt, progress, connect the traditional with the modern, link the artificial with the spiritual. There is a dynamic tension in all he creates: in his jewelry, there is a laser beam, which looks to be right out of Star Wars, sculpted atop a traditional bowguard that Native men wear hunting; his murals are heavily laden with both traditional images of the Zia symbol, pottery designs, corn, the protection and beauty of the rainbow alongside a playful cartoon “kiva head” character and other pop-culture and hip-hop influences.
For Ehren, this tension is a necessary evolution, or else, he says, “We’re not going to make it.” In his work, graceful, rhythmic powwow dance steps intertwine with abrupt, energetic, precise bboy battle moves. Ehren describes it as a “weird intersection,” because he doesn’t powwow and he doesn’t call himself a bboy. Having grown up in Santa Fe, Ehren doesn’t have what he calls a “good relationship” with his Pueblo. “You’re talking to someone who doesn’t have the [traditional] ritual, does not have the ceremony, so what do we do to fulfill that, spiritually?” he asks.
To that question, much of the answer lies in hip hop, the “culture for the cultureless,” where Ehren is fusing different cultures, in search of a niche, creating his own rituals. Hip hop gives him the ceremony, which adds depth and meaning to his world.
Although Ehren’s been drawing since he can remember––that was his “play time”––it was his mom, retired nurse Susie Natay, who recognized a natural musical ability and suggested he start playing the drums at about 10 years old. At first, he just played to play, beginning with bands and school orchestras. At 13 years old, Ehren had an amazing jazz drummer for a teacher, Mike Candito (a “mobster from New York”), and this influence, Ehren says, “just opened me up.” The young musician was exposed not just to the creative improvisational aspect of jazz but perhaps, more importantly, Mike also gave him a work ethic—working at something until you’re good at it, technically proficient and knowledgeable. Ehren says, “I’m a very spiritual person, so I think a lot of information is ingrained in me through ritual. I’ll be right there on your level with you as you’re teaching, but unless I’m practicing it and going through that motion every day, it’s really hard for me to absorb it. So that’s where drums begin, my principal instrument.” At this point, Ehren has “done it all” on the drums; he’s gone on tour, recorded albums, played with bands, been an accompanist to dance classes, and played myriad live shows around town.
Nowadays, his work as a musician is mostly collaborative. Take the piece, “Part of the Whole” composed for the CCA performance. He shows me a video clip, a duet that he and his dance partner co-choreographed. Ehren composed the music, based on the choreography. “We would talk about what we want to do, how we explore movement. What kind of story you can tell with your movement as far as energy exchange, counter moves. A lot of recording and playback, working in the mirror. It’s just playtime.” He smiles, “It’s playtime again.”
Ehren knew that the artwork that was going to be installed in the museum was going to be a cross section between nature and manmade (which they danced over and around and on top of), so much of the process included intertwining the artificial and the natural. For example, “We would go to a river dam and sample and record because it was this cross section of a manmade structure and nature. Whatever we could turn our attention to and be inspired by or fulfilled us in some way…and splicing it, breaking it down to where it’s not really recognizable. We like to turn the knobs on things and make it our own, reproduced, imitated sound.” The lyrics reflect that same, prevalent human anxiety, sung with poignancy and an evocative tone: “I see the sunset in my mind, I see a lighthouse in your eyes…part of the whole…I see the sunrise in your eyes, I feel my body move inside…part of the whole. Perhaps we can all end the unending task of how to live rightly in the world—not just in the garden, not just in the wilderness, but in the home that encompasses them both.”
This multimedia, improvisational layering showed up again as the finale for Ehren’s “Devised Performance” class taught last spring at IAIA. The performance, titled Cypher Dome, produced by Ehren and Mats Reuniusson, combined live jazz, Indigenous hip-hop rhythms, spoken word poetry and dazzling images projected on the dome. “It was a very 360-degree dimensional performance ” Ehren recalls. “That’s kind of where I want to be with performance. Not so much a stage performer but more an Indigenized concept of the circle, involving all aspects: the environment, the people, participation, music, dance, visual arts, the wearing of the regalia.”
Like many artists, Ehren shares the struggle to live comfortably from day to day, but the way he avoids misfortune is by capitalizing on his exponential talents. He looks at creativity as his profession, and doesn’t pigeonhole himself in one genre as a dancer, or an Indigenous artist, or a muralist. “You get me, as a total package, a creator…that is the vessel for which the spirit is inspired.” This inspiration is not happenstance.
Ehren describes the focus and consistency with which he listens with awareness, not just with the ears, but with intention. “On a spiritual level, Indigenous peoples had a lot of quiet,” he notes. “We can listen to nature and the way the spirit speaks to us in nature. I’ll go outside and hear how the wind is blowing, and see the way the birds are flying, and I’ll look at the other life forms that are showing themselves to me.” He explains that listening to what his body is trying to tell him—giving the body healthy rituals and patterns—is part of that ongoing communication, so the body, which Ehren describes as its own mechanism, can learn to trust. The better this relationship, Ehren says, the easier it is for him to create. “Finding those rituals and giving my body something to count on. And responding to whatever the universe is giving me that’s where I come from in my creative process now.”
To find out more about Ehren go to his website ehrenkeenatay.com.
Story by Emily Beenen, photos by Gabriella Marks