Album of the Week – Oku Shareh: Turtle Dance Songs of San Juan Pueblo

Artist: Various

Released: 1979

Ever since I heard my Navajo professor perform the “Pueblo Turtle Dance” on his drum during class, I have been fascinated with this genre of music. The soothing vocals and steady beat are simply enjoyable. The meanings behind the song and dance are just as incredible.

Found within this album are the first, second, third, and fourth Turtle Dance songs which were recorded by a variety of Native Americans. The songs rely on not just music, but also movement. Each dancer has a tortoise shell tied behind their right knee which rattles a sound with each step taken. The dancers wear leather belts that have sleigh bells sewn onto them. The drums are made of horse or bull hides and the performers are usually painted in bright colors.

The Pueblo communities consider the turtle dance to be one of their most important performances as it welcomes in the winter solstice. It is the end and beginning of an annual cycle. The scene for such a gathering has been described as:

“Through crowds of spectators, the visitor sees masses of rhythmically moving bodies arrayed in colorful costumes and paraphernalia. Excited children run through the village, their laughter mingling with the voices of singers and the repetitive sounds of bells, rattles, and drums. The smells of freshly baked bread, burning pition, and steaming stews permeate the air. Together, the careful ritual preparations, the group movement sequences, the closely interrelated dance and music, the costumes, and the audience itself create a performance that communicates important images and messages to performer and observer alike.”

Source: Jill D. Sweet, Dances of the Tewa Pueblo Indians: Expressions of New Life, School of American Research Press: Santa Fe, 1985.    

Here is the “First Turtle Dance Song:”

It is highly suggested that the listener enjoy the remainder of the songs. The music is as rich as the history and traditions of the tribes in the American southwest.

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