"Flutist of the Year" - 2009 NAMMY Awards.
The folks there that day at a woodsy park in Mishawaka, Indiana could have asked JJ Kent anything about his Oglala Lakota heritage as he blended stories passed down to him by the elders on the two reservations where he grew up with the music of his Native culture’s sacred wood-carved flute.
They could have even nudged JJ back into his days in Nashville where he played guitar and piano during a country music recording career in which he once opened for Waylon Jennings, and forged a lasting relationship with musician Dan Seals.
But the one question JJ got, the one question people seem to have on their mind every time JJ steps up to a microphone to educate the non-Indians about his heritage, culture and music?
What’s in the pipe?
“So many people believe we smoke marijuana in the peace pipe,” Kent says. “That’s the biggest myth of all that I’ve encountered.”
Tobacco is the sacred herb smoked in the sacred pipe, and Kent carries his own pipe, the same pipe that has traveled with him “for 25, 26 years.” He frequently offers prayers with the pipe, and refers to the pipe whenever the Native American story he is passing on calls for a visual aid.
The adopted Creek son of an Oglala Lakota mother, JJ grew up splitting time between his mother’s home on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming and the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Particularly Pine Ridge, where his mother was born and raised, and where Kent heard firsthand the stories of his Indian heritage.
“The traditional stories came from elders,” he says. “A lot of these stories are very old stories that have been around for a long time.”
He also picked up guitar and played piano, which led Kent to Nashville where he performed country music during a career that spanned nearly 30 years and included recording deals with Brykas Records in Nashville and Prestige Records in London. Among his career highlights: opening for Waylon Jennings in 1993 and working with “one of my dearest friends,” songwriter and musician Dan Seals, who died in 2009.
In recent years, JJ has shifted his focus from country back to the music of his heritage through the indigenous Northern Plains flute, which earned him the honor of being named “Flutist of the Year” at the 2009 NAMMY Awards.
Now, Kent carries “about 14” flutes to every performance. “Some of them, I have made myself, but over the years, I’ve been getting flutes from around the country,” he says, noting that each flute has been carved from its own specific type of wood and carries its own distinctive musical key.
The music Kent makes with the flute is stunning in its Native American tranquility. Listen to “Water of Life” and envision sitting on the banks of a river with the sounds of the flute flowing in the breeze. On “Come and Get To Know Me,” Kent invites the listener into his Native world with a happy flute over a shaker.
But Kent’s message is not all about peace and nature. Kent confronts the issue of domestic violence on the modern reservation in “Why?” The first voice in the song calls herself “Charlotte Walking Thunder,” a Native woman who takes a beating every time her husband drinks alcohol. The second voice, “Tiffany Moon Kettle,” tells the tale of a gang-member boyfriend’s abuse that forces her to quit dancing the ceremonial fancy shawl dance.
“The winds of the high plains fall upon my face and dries my tears,” the voice of Tiffany Moon Kettle cries, a cry that evokes a whole new set of questions when Kent shines his spotlight on the modern Indian reservation.
When I took “A Killer And His Brother” into the studio, JJ Kent was my first – and only – choice of flutist who could bring our Indian culture and spiritual sound of nature that defines the music of our heritage into a song about the wrongs the government has perpetuated, and continues to perpetuate against this country’s indigenous peoples.
JJ recorded the tracks in his home studio in Rapid City, South Dakota, where he currently resides. The first time I heard the tracks when JJ sent them back, I knew this musical warrior had turned “A Killer And His Brother” from an opaque musical statement into a flute-driven fire of spirits dancing to rally the ancestors for new battles to protect our Mother Earth and Her sources of life. .