Music Of The Tolowa Indians

Love, Luck, Animals, & Magic

New World Records NW 297

The gambling game and gambling songs described here are restricted to men. To ensure success they train for ten nights before gambling, abstaining from water for five days, from sexual intercourse for ten days (five and ten are the Tolowa ritual numbers), eating only thin acorn gruel, taking steam baths and baths in the river. "Your mind is away from sex, away from food, away from water, and concentrating on your luck for this game" (interview with Loren Bommelyn, April 12, 1976, in Los Angeles). Sometimes songs come to the man while he is training.

The "card" game is played with a bundle of about fifty uniform sticks made from the wood of the mock-orange, huckleberry, elderberry, or yew, or others that split straight. The "ace" is marked during the training period from a drop of the man's blood and some charcoal from the fire. (The mark is called chakwin in Tolowa.) During the game in the old days, according to Bommelyn,
There'd be . . . mounds of dentalium shells and money just piled up. . . because its high bets. And people that had really strong medicine and luck were very rich men. . . . Those are the older ones that have the money to buy you [a wife]. And they are the ones that ended up with five or six
wives because they had enough money to buy them and support them, because they had good luck in cards.

Two guessers, one from each team, sit opposite each other with their singers behind them, the women on the sidelines. The gambler mixes up the bundle of sticks to hide the ace while his team sings for him. The guesser must choose the hand where the ace is hidden, and then the gambler tosses the sticks on the ground, revealing the location of the marked stick. If the guesser has been successful, his side takes up the singing and the other side must guess; if the first guesser fails, the first gambler scores a point. When the ace is found, the gambler says "Hee chakwin!" ("They found my ace!"). These words can be heard at the end of most gambling songs on this record. The training, the "lucky" songs, the hand movements of the gambler, and the tricky endings of some songs work together to give the gambler an advantage. The first team to score eleven points wins.

The gambling songs are sung to the accompaniment of a square frame drum and a hand rattle. Several singer/drummers can perform at one time. However, the leaders drum is tuned to match his voice, and the other singers usually choose to second or sing "bass" and play the rattle. The drum and rattle are used only to accompany gambling songs, and every drum has a song that belongs to it. The rattle (chabecha) is a stick onto which pieces of deer hooves have been tied.

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Native Words



Gambling Song SAM LOPEZ, leader; LOREN BOMMELYN, second In this set of gambling songs a pattern emerges that holds true in most of the gambling songs in this album. The leader begins beating his drum softly and starts to sing. He is joined in unison by his second, who shakes the rattle in time with the drum. Later, the second switches to a bass part to accompany the leader. To ward the end, the second and the leader merge once more into unison and finish together. In the middle of most songs is a higher-pitched section akin to the "rise" found in many California Indian songs from other areas.

The bass part uses the vocables "heyowe," "hayowe," or "hoyowe" to carry the ostinato figure.
Some songs. . . have the basic "Heyowe" bass, but some of them [are] really complex songs. . . . When a singer climbs up his scale and then drops back down to his bass, then you pick that up and duplicate that exactly. And you carry that same thing all the way through. And then when he goes clear up his scale and changes the levels of his voice, then drops down, you'll match imme diately. . . . And that is a good second. (Interview with Loren Bommelyn, April 12, 1976, in Los Angeles.)

Between songs an interlude of drumming usually occurs.

The richness of Sam Lopez's voice is rare in any man, but at eighty-nine it is remarkable indeed.
Gambling Song SAM LOPEZ, leader; LOREN BOMMELYN, second Tolowa
Gambling Song SAM LOPEZ, leader; LOREN BOMMELYN, second Tolowa
Gambling Song SAM LOPEZ, leader; LOREN BOMMELYN, second Tolowa
Gambling Song SAM LOPEZ, leader; LOREN BOMMELYN, second Tolowa
Pelican Song LOREN BOMMELYN, leader On summer evenings when men are catching smelts on the beach, they watch the pelicans and sing this song. The words are marshotonglet talets^t ("crabapples pounded up"), techines talets^t ("blackberries pounded up"). When the pelican dives down to pick up a fish, this formula makes his wings go sour and he falls into the ocean.

The melody is pendular and uses a scale of only three notes, which approximate a minor triad.
Gambling Song LOREN BOMMELYN, leader; FREDERICK W. SCOTT, JR., CARL JAMES, and WALTER RICHARDS, SR., seconds The leader begins and the others soon join in, following the pattern described above. Bommelyn sings the first song five times, using the formal stop pattern of repeated simple phrases and the voiced aspiration.

The second song, sung only three times, belongs to his drum.
Gambling Song WALTER RICHARDS, SR., leader; LOREN BOMMELYN and SAM LOPEZ, seconds These three songs follow the basic pattern for gambling songs outlined above. The only exception is that intermittent harmony occurs in the second song be cause of two men seconding at the same time on different pitches. These seconds have a great deal of freedom in choosing their musical lines, and in the third song the second ends after the leader has stopped. Walter Richard's voice is high and loud, with varying intensity (pulsation) on the sustained tones. Tolowa
Gambling Song WALTER RICHARDS, SR., leader; LOREN BOMMELYN and SAM LOPEZ, seconds Tolowa
Gambling Song WALTER RICHARDS, SR., leader; LOREN BOMMELYN and SAM LOPEZ, seconds Tolowa
Ceremonial Dances Loren Bommelyn, Walter Richards, Sr., and Sam Lopez, leaders These ceremonial dances are taken from the Tolowa thanksgiving or world-renewal ceremony. The dance lasts ten nights and is performed at the end of summer or beginning of fall. It should be performed at Yontocket, the Center of the Earth. The dance is sometimes called the "feather dance" because of the elaborate feather headdresses worn by the men.

Although the Tolowa perform the religious ceremony primarily to thank the Creator (ishgeye or ishvraiye) for "making the world and sending it forth," some social elements of wealth display and courting behavior are present. Equal numbers of boys and girls dance alternately in a semicircle (Tolowa girls can dance until they bear their first child). At specified times in the music a boy breaks away from the circle and dances back and forth in front of the group, brandishing his obsidian knife. "After looking at all the girls, he picks out the one he's attracted to and points his knife at her, and she dances in front of him, and he dances in front of her. It's like saying 'I like that' [the girl]." (Most of the information here comes from Loren Bommelyn and Sheryl Bommelyn Steinruck, who learned it from older Tolowa people, especially Sam Lopez, Walter Richards, Sr., and Amelia Brown.) In this recording a shout precedes the boy's movement, and the abalone shells on the girl's dress can be heard rattling as she moves back and forth. In the Ceremonial Dance, according to Bommelyn and Steinruck,
the dancers are in a half-circle, the fire is in the middle, and the spectators sit on the opposite side of the pit, completing the circle. Because the circle's so very important, and the doorway of a house in the old days was round, and this represents the womb of the mother. And each night when you go to sleep, you die in a sense. The day that you have lived is in the past. And when you crawl through that door in the morning, which is always towards the east, you are reborn into that day. So that's why a circle is really important.

The singers from the north villages stand in one corner and those from the south villages in the opposite corner. The two groups alternate, singing about an hour at a time. The end of each song signifies the passing from one year to the next.'
And in between every song there's a prayer and the oldest man or the oldest medicine person has the prayers that were taught word for word to him from his ancestors. And the beginning of one is - "the Creator sent forth" - "He made the world with His hands," - and it starts out like that - then you start praying about every animal, every fish, a good life, good crops, and on and on. By the end of the tenth night, the old man will say, "I have prayed clear around the world." He has prayed for everything, everything that we use, everything that's important to us to give thanks.

The final song (band 6) ends the tenth night of the Smith River Dance. Sam Lopez pronounces a benediction at the end and say "God bless" in English for those who do not speak Tolowa.

Each Tolowa ceremonial song is performed twice; then a new song is started in the cycle. On band 5, Loren Bommelyn sings the first two songs twice each, Walter Richards the third set, and Sam Lopez the fourth and fifth without repeats. Interspersed between songs and repetitions are the prayers and their formal sustained Hey or "Amen" ending by the chorus.

Loren's first two songs are among the oldest. "Haoinlet Chinyashe" refers to a mountain where medicine is made and to a tree snag on or near the mountain. "Ageya Shumte" is the oldest song anyone remembers hearing. It means "I am hurt, my cousin," or "Please wait for me, my cousin, because I am hurt." The next song, performed by Walter Richards, was not translated.

Sam Lopez sings "Enchwa Hazhay^t," about Big Flat, the last interior village on the south fork of the Smith River. It was a beautiful place for gathering nuts, Indian "potatoes," and basket material. The Ending Dance on band 6, by Sam Lopez, is also untranslated.

The way the group interacts to make music for the Ceremonial Dance is astounding. The leader begins, and the others join in with ostinato parts, derived from the melody, in layers both above and below the leader. In Walter Richards' and Sam Lopez's songs, a "tenor" part above the leader signals the section where the dance becomes more vigorous (emphasized by the shouting).

The most outstanding vocal technique is the rapid repetition of syllables on sustained and ending tones. The only instrumental accompaniment is the rhythmic swishing of the abalone shells on the girls' dance dresses.
Of the Ceremonial Dance, Loren Bommelyn says: And it goes on and on like that for ten nights, and they call it the "Renewal" - renewing the Earth, putting it back into balance - putting ourselves into perspective with what's important as human beings.
Ending Ceremonial Dance Loren Bommelyn, Walter Richards, Sr., and Sam Lopez, leaders Tolowa