Indian Music Of The Pacific Northwest Coast - Side B

Collected and recorded by Dr. Ida Halpern
Introduction and notes by Dr. Ida Halpern
The most important ceremony of the West Coast Indians, and one in which music plays a significant part, has always been the potlatch. The word is derived from the Nootka "patshetl," which means "giving" or "a gift." It was customary for the chief of a tribe to call a potlatch and to distribute to his guests nearly all his possessions, with the exception of his house. The more he could give away, the greater became his honor and prestige. In return, he expected to receive even more worldly possessions at future potlatches given by rival chiefs.
Such feasting and gift giving are almost universal. Similar customs were observed by the Maya and the Melanesians; the Maya considered it compulsory to give the return feast even in death. Kwakiutl carried rivalry, and distribution of property, to a unique extreme in that they would even destroy possessions in order to indicate superior wealth.

The potlatch was held in the fall when, after the long seasons of hunting and fishing, the Indian was free to indulge in winter dances and in the ceremonies of the secret societies, Occasions such as marriage, birth, and death were marked by the potlatch; but it might also be called in vengeance, to save face, to repair insult, or even to establish rights to certain dances, songs, legends and crests, or costumes. The raising of a totem pole, the building of a house, or the legalization of new titles were considered worthy of the potlatch; it was held also to celebrate the acquisition of the "copper," that mystic symbol of beaten metal indicative of the highest status.

A chief might give a "feast" for the men of his household in order to ratify a new decree or ordinance, but the whole community would then unite in a potlatch to sanction such new laws for the clan.
Within his own house, the chief could celebrate minor occasions, such as the bestowing of titles on his children, through the medium of the potlatch. But when he wished such honors for himself, outside chiefs must be called to the potlatch. There was fierce competition for distinguished titles and honors; their acquisition had always to be recognized through the potlatch, and in this way, a chief gained the approval of his own house and the respect of others. The greater the title, the greater the potlatch.
It was possible for even commoners to climb the social ladder by giving potlatches, for no sharp line existed between chiefs and commoners. Folktales contradict the assumption that only a chief could give a potlatch.

Titles were graded, the highest belonging to that head man or chief who owned more rights than others. Although he held great influence and prestige, be had no legal authority, except over slaves. His influence over the people of his house, as well as their support, were gained through the giving of "feasts." But in honoring visitors, he depended on the help of other chiefs in calling a potlatch.
Everything connected with the ceremony had historical meaning and the most stringent rules in dress and ceremonial were followed. At funerals, significant objects were displayed and people would pay for the opportunity of seeing them. At winter dances, small gifts were given; sometimes they were true gifts, but more often they had to be returned with added value, according to set rules. Guests of the potlatch were welcomed by the chief and led, each to his appointed place, according to rank and tribe. Each procedure was accompanied by ceremonial singing, appropriate dances were performed by the host chief and speeches and orations were made glorifying his own position.

In the old days potlatches took from four to six months. "Everybody got really fat" as Mungo Martin said. In more recent times the potlatch was rushed to two or three weeks. Mungo remembered when he was a
little boy on Taina Island a chief called a potlatch and he stayed six months. Then he went away to another potlatch for another six months, being away altogether a whole year. "They had dried salmon, dried berries, and dried clams, and sometimes five fires in one house."
The only indulgence, in addition to food, was tobacco, smoked in a pipe called "calumet." Alcohol was unknown until introduced by the white mnn.
In potlatch ceremonies, custom demands that everything be repeated four times--each song sung four times, each dance danced four times-because four is a mystical number. At the time of the potlatch, families brought out all their crests to impress the audience. Entertainment played a major role and many theatrical tricks were performed, such as pretending to burn a woman alive, or to behead the dancers. Such tricks were pure theatre, but, as Chief Billy Assu said,"The white man misunderstood such tricks, and so forbade them, thinking the Indians were very cruel."
During their feasting they told of all the glories of the past and present. The Grease Feast was a very important one during which they gave away oolichan (fish) oil, one of their most highly valued commodities.
On the very last night they took off their headdresses and danced and sang a last song, to declare that potlatch over. The chief got up and started to sing and then everybody joined in.
The potlatch was the social and cultural artery of their lives. In all its aspects (and as a present-day chieftain has aptly summed it up) "it was a cold war between families, because one wants to outdo the others."

Play song


Performed by


Native Words



Potlatch Song (transcribed) Billy Assu Belongs to KAI-AWT. "He is singing of recognized leaders of his tribe. No other people could equal them. A more recent leader might appear but he speaks about his forefathers. They can never be equaled. He is giving the history of his tribe."
In most potlatch songs the beat is caused by the hand-clapping of the singer and is not a defect on the record. The rhythm of the hand-clapping depends on the singer and is adapted to the words and not to the music.
Main material consists of a perfect 5th, b flat to a flat. Dominant-tonic polarization. An excellent example of economy in notes which still are able to accomplish intensity and impact. The perfect 5th is played with, back and forth, with an occasional adding of the 6th which can be understood as the augmentation of a 2nd, the 2nd added to the first interval.

Range: 6th

The song begins with words and the long sustained notes are vocalized "oh oh" with pulsations. The first phrase consists of part of a melody with words, the other part vocalization, only one-tone vocalization. Melodic material (first on one phrase). Then follows a recitative part. Afterwards appears a repetition of the original phrase. In recitative there is a tonic-dominant movement. The melodic phrase appears. It is again subdivided between words to the first melodic part and vocalism to the second part. This variation occurs four times, finishing with the initial melodic phrase. The subdivision between the repetitions is distinctive for the interpolation of the same note in succession.
In the recitative tie variation of the number of times the tonic leaps into the dominant shows a distinctive melodic pattern: 4,6,7,7,6 (7), 7, 6 (8). Rhythm: U - U - U -

All of a sudden there is a dramatic suspense when the c which is the added 2nd to the 5th is given importance from being a mere passing note to becoming part of the basic material. Repeated 6 times in succession. From then on other irregularities happen such as:
a b flat b flat • flat twice
An extension* An inversion of tonic, dominant, dominant, tonic. Mere repetition of rest in ending with the melodic phrase a. Potential impact and melodic strength of the single note. Rhythm is even beats with the occasional iambus ( U -).

* We have the repetition 6 with exclusion of e flat, b flat b flat, an extension.

It fluctuates between b flat and e flat, with more weight being given to e flat which may thus be considered the tonic with b flat the tone of second importance.
Intervals: 5th, 2nd
Total range: major 6th
Variations of b flat, b flat +, e flat, e flat +

He begins with words. On long sustained notes he vocalizes on "o" with pulsations. The first phrase consists of part of the melody with words, the remainder vocalization on one tone plus vocalization of the melodic material (one phrase). Then follows recitative. It seems as if he enumerates something for
four beats on e flat, and then, on the fifth beat, jumps up to b flat. This pattern leads back to phrase a four times.
1. intentional breath-taking part of melody, a stretto in breath-taking.
2. repetition with emphasis, when repeating the original subject a slight variation in beating.
3. an enlargement of the tonic, dominant, adding the 6th which was slurred before.

1- Wa ja su las
2- E a ka gee-lee sa
3- Gk-ik-sus ta li sa la
4- Nik kus to la
5- Kin glaw wies kás owa
6- Gik sis ta li sa la
7- Wá kás u las
8- Kin has kás owa wa
9- Ya wa-mis kás awa
10- Ya gin Wa-mis kás awa
1- You go ahead
2- And have a good time all over the world
3- Chief all over the world
4- Shouting out
5- Wonderful way I stand
6- Chief all over the world
7- Go ahead Wonderful one
8- Oh Wonderful one
9- You Wamiss (Chief Wamiss) Wonderful one
10- Mine Wamiss Wonderful one.
Potlatch Song Billy Assu Belonged to Salmon River.* "When he gives a potlatch he must exhibit all the crests. Sixteen tribes came some time fifty years ago. Fed them a11 for three weeks. Distribution of: 100 ft. long full of food, silver bracelets, 6000 blankets, canoes, money. On his crest all the animals above included WAIKAI."**

*This song belongs to Mrs. Billy Assu because she belongs to Salmon River. She brought the song into the marriage.
**WAIKAI is the first man of Cape Mudge.

Syllables are sung with the melody--important text in the connectives.

Sleah ja leah ja on the melody.
O ha ho o ho ho.

They vocalize on the melody. The recitative-like part is developed from the one or two-tone material. The melodic motive starts on meaningless syllables. The recitative on c follows the melody. At the ending there are the syllables Ho ho ho ho. There is a predominating iambic beat intermingled with straight beats. An interesting common factor of potlatch songs is gravitation towards long sustained notes.

Range, Slightly over an octave Intervals: 2nd, 3rds, 6ths
Range: Slightly over an octave. Intervals: 2nds, 3rds, 6ths.

Ya la gya
Well, go on
1- Ya la gya
2- La tse mas klas dwok a klata
3- Kwo mushs a gahk kla
4- Gahk bus tu la kla
5- Gwom mu gjuse tu la
1- Well, go on
2- Now you shall see
3- The wealth will come
4- Reason of you growing up in popularity.
5- Growing up in wealth.
Head Dress Song Mungo Martin Tsonoqua song, Tlingit sonq in Tlingit language. "May or may not be good." (Tsonoqua is the wild woman of the woods with protruding lips.)

It is Mrs. Martin's song. She got it from the Tlingit, is her grandmother-in-law comes from there. The blanket came from Alaska, brought by Mrs. Hunt (the original Mrs. Hunt) who was the mother of the George Hunt, who worked originally with Boas. Hardly anyone would be able to understand the Tlingit language. As a dowry it came down. The translator is not able to understand it. Only a chief could wear a head dress. It was an elaborate headgear made of wood, set with sea-lion whiskers and with streamers of ermine down the back. In addition objects of great value were displayed on it, such as eagle down, insets of abalone shell and large animal carvings. A rattle with animal carvings accompanied the dancer.

Beating with sticks begins with emphasis on the first beat. He he ja ha, two voices, mostly meaningless syllables. Occasional rest in beating. The voice is used in pushing tones, contrasted with legato sustained tones. Within the small range there is constant movement downward and upwards, using intervals of mostly 2nds, with an occasional 3rd or 4th.

In the second part the recitative is built on a pendulum movement, leaping down approximately a 4th. For Indian music this is an unusual melody, progressing stepwise upwards three tones and back one.

Range: About a 6th
Intervals: 2nds, 3rds, 4ths
Feast Song Mungo Martin Two hundred years old. "Do not come out. Don't look in the house. Don't get out of the house. Sisiutl is around." (Sisiuti is the sea serpent.)

Starts with voice only. Melodic structure in intense movement within the range of a 6th, with intervals of 2nds and 3rds.

La kila e kila Then even beating begins: Even beat, fast double-beat, then caesura.

Triple beat on the next melodic strophe. Recitative plus three strophes.
He ha ha ai je he
Je he hai staccato
Ho je he ha staccato
Female voice joins in faintly. Male voice changes the tones terrace-like.

Different melodic structure with different beats-double beat. Different melody, triple beats. Voices only, without beats. In recitative on many tones.

Slow recitative on one tone with slow beats. Then recitative with text on several tones with even beats. A complex song with changes of beat, melodies, recitatives, and tonal range. Recitative and melody same beating on the word Ekila, interspersed with a small recitative on one tone. Second melody followed again by a small recitative on one tone. Change of rhythm in double beating brings the first part to an end with a caesura in beating and singing-Hoi! Then follows a small recitative. New part begins with beating three times as fast as original, and a new melody. The next part, solo, vocal singing, joined by woman, without beating.
Ho je je-a few slow beats and then again faster beating on recitative-like singing. The part on the meaningless syllables je he ha is vocalizing, followed on one-tone recitative with beating, followed again by recitative-like singing, with even beats. The long recitative-like singing is interrupted again with je he ha vocalism. There are several repetitions of this pattern.

In short, we have here three noticeable, distinct parts:
1. Singing of melodic material), by one or two people plus vocalism on meaningless syllables.
2. Straight recitative on one tone by man alone, on a higher spoken tone.
3. Singing recitative on more than one tone with male voice joined by female voice.

1- Wa mintla ká u la
2- Wa mientl dzi la
3- Ka sa Kás-la dzi da kás-la
4- Ow am tlim gkuse towk sise ta lack
5- Wa tla ise gee la
6- Ha wa las kás ouise la ouse tlank gwa kas owa

The second part, in a different tempot
has a similar text and meaning.

1- Ka sa Kas-la dzi ki do
2- Ow am tlis kise duk tsi-sa lack
3- A tlas da douck ki na

Now, praise to the host

1- Ká la see ci ya ka gwe kwi ká la
2- Kints nu lac la gka mai
3- Tlaa la-will toe nuch
4- Wá gas ou tlas he kas a lise Wá
1- There feed to fullness
2- Feed in fullness, Big one
3- Walk a lot you wonderful one
4- I'll not be looking around (watching)
5- Till you are so heavy with food
6- Your feast dish is so heavy

The second part, in a different tempo, has a similar text and meaning.

1- Walk fast you that has the greatness.
2- Just don't look around
3- Or else you will accidentally see (the Sisiutl)

Now, praise to the host

1- He has a copper in his possession
2- Our Elder
3- Or else you will never get out (If you continue feasting) Explanation calling people
4- You mighty ones do it right away and again
Finishing Song Mungo Martin This is the ending song of all feasts and celebrations (Tzi-tza-4ta song). About two hundred years old. After the potlatch, on the very last night, they take off their bands. Everything is over. They stand up and sing and dance a last song to let everybody know that the potlatch is over and they can go home.

In the old times the potlatch took from four to six months. "Everybody got really fat
after this great celebration." Everything has to be done four times over. Now they rush it in two to three weeks. The chief gets up and sings it. Everybody joins in. Mungo Martin is the only one who knows it completely. Chief Jimmy Knox, Fort Rupert's
chief, owns this song, having inherited it through generations. After his death it will belong to Peter Martin, one of Mungo's grandsons.

Recitative and singing-Mrs. Martin joins in later. Everything was done, blessing by the song in SUWASH language (old language of the Kwakiutl). Blessings-everybody gets the craving to participate in the feast. In recitative, blessings spoken out "That is our blessing to you, we had no argument, everybody had a fine time." The little people speak in the recitative "Even if we do not participate and are not allowed to, we are still enjoying it and being blessed." The little people are not given the same gifts.
The songs speak to the wealthy and important people and later to the little people.
It starts with an expressive spoken recitative. Melody begins with the following text:

Hei li li i kala
Hei em me em
Ha li ka la
Ha ]a lii ka la

Mungo sings in a wailing kind of voice in the range of a 4th, using 2nds and 3rds. Rhythm: There is one consistent rhythmic pattern through the song. Polyrhythmic quality between melody accompanying beating is particularly noticeable. Recitative during the song-one tone singing, e flat, approximately. The explaining voice in the middle is
Mungo Martin's granddaughter Helen Hunt.

Both Feast song and Finishing song may be considered functional songs. The initial melody is often repeated rather literally with slight variations on the ending note and playing about the second. The small recitatives interspersed are related to the song in melodic structure, sung on the highest note of the melody. One phrase consisting of the germ motif in three repetitions, the first two ending on c, and then the third ending on b as a home tone.
The first two motifs lead on to a third whose end tone is longer in duration and repetition. Then follows a connecting phrase, twice repeated, leading into the small one-tone sung, recitative. The singer comes out of the recitative with the connecting phrase material and then follows the motifs as above. This pattern is repeated several times with small microtonic deviations. Connective material is on he em he em. Melodic phrase material is on hei li li li kala. Same rhythm throughout on the stick beating. The English-spoken recitative belonging to the song introduces an entirely new material in a one-time presentation in the range of a 5th, with intervals of a 2nd, 3rd, and 4th.

This is the big finale of all the festivities. It is called the Tzi-tzet-ka song (Finishing Song.)

Wa ga kint din-id-da
Now we shall sing
Gla kwa tla
You stand up
Atl ma owck ya a
It is not just made (meaning the song)
Kints gwe gka la sa
The words we are saying
La me sins wa gklt
Now we shall do it.
La ma as se la-way
There it is out
Cha la chi da
Gwa tla-la am da a cha da sins gwils gwil da
Which our elders had made (ready for us)
La mi la-way da gla-gwk kaw
The cedar headpiece is out (is shown)
Kints ma-ya-in tla
Which we have honor and respect
La mi sin ts wagatl
Now we shall go ahead
He-la-to clhla gal la gin kwathkiul gin-me
Now listen attentively as I am the Kwakiutl
Hach gin ou gwa ma lise sa gin ha sa nauch na-la
As I am the foremost of the world.

(All the preceding is the recitative)

Song proper:

He li Lás-lach
Be comfortable, wonderful ones
Ka nouch ha le kás-lack
As we the wonderful ones are comfortable
Kas gin nuch ghu gwa lah
As we have the spiritual power obtained.

During the Tsi-tza-ka song (Finishing song) each person entering the hall is given a cedar headpiece, long at first, but then cut in a length to go around the head and be tied. (Cedar headband.) Only one person has the right to cut the pieces of cedar as the people enter the house. This is a high honor and privilege.

(After Helen Hunt says a few words in English the following is heard)

Hei li ka la (these are the syllables used from Hei li ka lich la)
Hei li ke lis lá genuch
As we are comfortable.