When Native Muscian Robert Mirabal Expresses Himself, Expect a Rocking, Joyous, Soulful—and Completely Original— Experience
Casually dressed in a T-shirt, jeans, and boots, Robert Mirabal sits hugging his knees on the couch of his Taos office, chatting with his assistant as she fields a steady stream of calls. Almost shy in the beginning, and reluctant to talk about himself, Mirabal eventually opens up to talk about his work. His brow is a little more creased, his expression a little more weary than that of the young performer who charmed audiences a decade ago with his mellow flute playing.
Mirabal, 34, has traveled an unusual road, finding public acclaim and a world of possibilities. His success has taken him around the nation and abroad. Today his fan base is huge and he's credited with being on the crest of a renaissance in Native music. He's about to head out on tour and will return to New Mexico in a month for a series of concerts in his native Taos as well as in Albuquerque. The music he creates, with its wildly divergent influences, reflects the world as he sees it.
"I'm fascinated by the world," he says. And it seems the world is fascinated by him. Mirabal and his band, Rare Tribal Mob, filmed a television special, Music From A Painted Cave, that is presently being broadcast nationally on PBS stations, and this April he released a live album of the music.
Mirabal and his crew, which has grown to about 20 ("We need two buses now"), are taking the show across the country, performing in a variety of locations. The musical release, Music From A Painted Cave, climbed the Billboard charts as a Top New Age Album this year.
New Age? Isn't Mirabal's music more about the ancient age, containing, as it does, influences from some of the world's oldest cultures?
"The market likes to categorize things," Mirabal says, dismissing the question with a wave of his hand. "I don't care where people find the music, because they will find it." Amazon.com named Mirabal 1999 New Age Artist of the year, so fans definitely are tracking him down.
Mirabal also won his second Best Songwriter award at the Native American Music Awards last year, a solid achievement that recognizes his gifts in creating such distinctive songs as "The Dance," "Medicine Man," and "Navajo Fires." All proved to be extremely popular at concerts and on the radio.
For those who are just now discovering him, who is this performer who's caused such a stir and whose concerts routinely sell out? Mirabal grew up surrounded by a large extended family in Northern New Mexico's Taos Pueblo. The pueblo has the distinction of being the oldest continuously inhabited dwelling in the country and is renowned for its unbroken traditions, poetic architecture, and the many artists within its walls. Mirabal's first language, Tiwa, was spoken in the family and in the pueblo (and still is today). He often incorporates some of his language into his songs.
Mirabal was raised by his mother and grandparents and attended day school at the pueblo, where he learned the fundamentals of clarinet, saxophone, piano, and drums. At age 18, after acquiring a flute from a pueblo flute maker, he found his true instrument.
"They say the flute chooses you," he reflects. After being chosen, Mirabal made music, crafted his own flutes, and eventually recorded several flute albums.
So far, Robert Mirabal's story doesn't sound that different from many of the Native musicians creating music from their roots. What gave Mirabal his great breakout impetus, his ability to take Native music to the next level for an audience of both Native and non-Native fans?
Showmanship, for one—an unabashed theatricality. With his long, dark hair and fringed leather jacket, Robert Mirabal begins his concerts looking like the archetype of the Native American flute player. When he raises his instrument to play, the haunting, lyrical sounds that emerge reinforce the notion that here is a spiritual being who can elevate our souls halfway to heaven. That's the first part of the concert.
Then he brings out the heavy equipment.
During the rest of the evening, the audience alternates between excitement and awe. Mirabal pulls out all the stops with a pageant of eclectic rock music, Native dance and costumes, original songs, storytelling, and ecstatic theatricality. The music pulsates to Celtic, African, hip-hop, and didgeridoo rhythms, Martin Denny-like animal sounds, and Japanese Taiko drumming while delivering the satisfying sounds of Native American song and classic Seventies rock 'n' roll.
It's no surprise to learn that Mirabal has studied theater, acted in summer stock, and written theatrical scripts. He brings a sure sense of timing and the actor's ability to draw onlookers into the experience. He also finds inspiration in Peter Gabriel and Pink Floyd and "the way they created theater."
As in a play, his stage performances are filled with a range of emotions—ineffable sadness and unexpected joy, tenderness and excitement, social statements and pure delight—that surge through the music and the visuals. Dancers in brilliant powwow attire swirl gracefully on the stage. Like an opera, there is music, song, dance, costume, and storytelling, something for the mind as well as the senses.
Then there's the music. A superb songwriter, Mirabal varies the pace of his performances with quiet moments and crescendos of sound. A few of his songs have become crowd favorites—classics the audience waits to hear. This is the essence of a Mirabal concert and the real key to his success. Pageantry with musical substance equals high-grade entertainment.
How do his songs come into being?
"I like watching people and hearing their stories," Mirabal says. "If something impresses me, I write it down. Then when I get together with the band, I'll try to meld it into a song." His band includes guitar virtuoso Estevan Castillo, Reynaldo Lujan on tribal rhythms and vocals, Michael Kott on cello, Robin Pfeffer on bass, drumming legend Kenny Aronoff (at times), and an ethnically mixed group of musicians and vocalists.
Mirabal says Taos provides a wealth of stories, referring to the rich culture and history of the pueblo and mountain art colony next door. He often uses the stories to draw out deeper meanings.
While many Native artists struggle with questions about their identity, creating music that speaks to their roots while not wanting to be limited by them, Mirabal has transcended the question. His work embraces his own culture as well as all cultures, all peoples, all music.
"I try to create timelessness in my work," Mirabal says. In fact, there's a surreal element to the show. He has a way of lifting the audience and taking it to a place where anything is possible. "I can't speak for all Natives or even for my own tribe," he says. "I'm just an artist, an artistic voice—that's what I am."
Mirabal's voice has expanded the horizons for Native artists and every artist coming from a place of tradition. However expansive his work has become, at this point in his life, Mirabal contemplates simplicity.
"If I tried to create a show about all the complexities of the Native experience, it would just be too much," he says. He compares what he's trying to achieve to a Mondrian painting that makes a profound statement through its simplicity. Spending time alone in the mountains helps him clear his head and reflect on where he's going.
There are many places Mirabal wants to go. He'd like to do a film in Africa and interact with African tribes. Why Africa?
"My whole life feels like going on safari," he says, "like going out into the unknown to explore. I'd like to see the world from a Native point of view and bring back stories to tell the grandmothers. Many people are interested in Native cultures. What I'm doing is the reverse—coming from a Native culture and going out to other cultures to learn from them. For example, Japanese culture has been very influential on me. I like to think of myself as an artist with the world as my palette."
Mirabal's family often goes with him on his tours and travels. His wife, Dawn, has a business background and manages Mirabal Enterprises as well as helping with logistics on tour. The couple's four-year-old daughter, Aspen Dawn, "knows a lot about the music business already and likes seeing new places."
Mirabal says he's enjoying life right now. The downside of fame for him is that "you're constantly being scrutinized by people who don't really know you. Sometimes things you say get twisted around, and people try to make you something you're not. You know, real life is different from life portrayed by the media."
Yet this talented musician remains upbeat. "I've found something I can call my own and my days are filled with travel, writing, and music."
What's next for Robert Mirabal?
PBS has asked for another special and he's working on that. When his Music From A Painted Cave tour ends in December, he'll return to his home in Taos Pueblo and resume his roles in tribe and family.
"My work keeps changing," he says. "It always will."
What new rhythms, what sounds, what insights will Robert Mirabal bring to his work in the future? They will certainly be as surprisingly different as this performer himself. Undoubtedly they'll ring with honesty, with the mellow sounds of the flute, and the pulse of rock. There'll always be stories and songs.
"In the end," says Mirabal, "it's about the music."