Nai Palm's "Needle Paw" and Music + Identity
“Wititj (Lightning Snake)”, a song serving as a powerful contrast to the album's spooky, smoky cover, permeates the aural space with electric force. Australian musician Jason Guwanbal Gurruwiwi sings within the traditional style of indigenous northern Australian clan Galpu over a jazzier acoustic guitar reharmonization, intensity growing at the height of improvised shaking wails and calls only to settle back down into a meditative hum. At times his voice is interrupted by wooden clave thunderous claps that accelerate as if being encapsulated by the vocals' sudden peaks of urgency, surrendering to the declaration of intense emotion, only to collapse down with it afterwards. The guitar harmony, strummed in one patient yet methodical hand stroke before being sustained and dying out, sounds neither minor nor major. It is more accurately tense, undecided, tentative, and the genre is reworked with the same level of ambiguity, and simultaneously, intrigue. Before we have any cultural or historical understanding of Australian Galpu music, we feel what it evokes in its performers, its audience.
This song comes from Australian singer-songwriter Nai Palm's most recent acoustic solo album, Needle Paw (2017), a sensitive yet intense ode to her vast indigenous aboriginal Australian background. Nai Palm, one of the pioneering artists of current contemporary music best known for leading the Neo-Soul and jazz fusion band Hiatus Kaiyote, exemplifies this ability to infuse and palatably interpret her identity and background in her music in a way that resonates with her audience. She ruminates on the sweet and pure virtues of life like family and falling in love, both of which are culturally significant to her heritage's Galpu Clan. Yet, it all manifests a deep composite of history into a work of music that any audience member from outside her historical background can feel and subconsciously understand. The sophomore album by Nai Palm's band Hiatus Kaiyote, Choose Your Weapon (2015), features track-by-track commentary that gives historical and semantic context to everything from her cryptic poetry to her employment of symbolism, whether that be to convey her childhood in an orphanage alongside her two twin brothers or her personal philosophy on the strings of atoms and spirituality that hold life together. In addition to her musical content, she participates in masterclasses and interviews to verbally elaborate on the significance of not only her works but her purpose for writing and performing music. Throughout it all, she elicits powerful reactions from her audience, simultaneously pawns and witnesses of her world. It is all to say the same things – contemporary music, first and foremost, is illuminated by way of identity, and there is a piece of it that all of us can find in our own.
The most powerful contemporary music not only bears cathartic and therapeutic objectives for listeners, melded by harmony, melody, and rhythm that is tailored to particular emotions and actions, but conveys an entirely unique representation of a human being. It is an insight into their mind and experiences, illustrating selections of the infinite chapters of one's life with sounds. The composites of these identities make for a new kind of music: genre-less, unable to categorize, inexplicable...and yet somehow, something we feel and understand almost as deeply as if it were also ours. Even if just to have for a split moment. Whether it is given explicitly through verbal or literary commentary or implicitly through manipulating musical content to illicit specific emotions or experiences, it serves to make music a deeper, more personal experience for both the listeners and creators in our ever-growing universe.
In the contemporary music world, music serves as more than what meets the eye (or ear). History has become expansive, sociopolitical climates more complex, and identities increasingly multifaceted and equivocal. So it makes sense that contemporary art cannot easily encompass or convey the vast spectrum of human emotion and experience on its own/without other means of contextualization. Musicians' performances and compositional processes are made sense of by a plethora of contextualizing factors in addition to the musical content: historical, sociopolitical events, religion and spirituality, and most significantly – personal identity.
In the case of Nai Palm, we learn about her orphanage, her What's Underneath Project being both a physical and mental act of vulnerability, undressing her clothes, unraveling the source of her grief, only to be stripped down bare and learning to confront grief with “nothing but nature”. She states that her encounters with nature inspired monumental revelations and sources of creativity in her life. The name of her band Hiatus Kaiyote came from her intimate, unspoken exchange with a Coyote in the Australian desert following the passing of her mother that helped her overcome her grief. The song from Choose Your Weapon (2015), “Molasses”, was her process of overcoming a broken heart from an ex-lover by describing him in his aesthetic beauty and embracing the course of impermanence that naturally takes place in our universe, both psychologically and environmentally.
It all seemed to draw a parallel to when I picked up my unconventional instrument, the vibraphone, after years of playing rock drums and music covers with predictable chord progressions and lyrical subjects that had no pertinence to any specific individual or identity. The depth of individual experience was trivial, or at best, superficial. In rock music, there was sex, drugs, and hyper masculine perseverance. In pop music, there was falling in love with a boy, an adolescent playfulness or an innocent seductiveness that the music industry found permissible for public distribution. Contemporary music had started to inch from the confines of genre to the facets of identity and experience since the 20th century, but it manifested most strongly in the subjects that didn't fall into stereotypical rock or pop music culture. This didn't happen until there was an audience that didn't gravitate towards repetitive, conventional lyrics or chord progressions that had at that point been established for decades – the late 20th century, bleeding into the 21st century. Atonal music in the early 20th century allowed for a greater harmonic palette to expand emotional command of the music. Electronic effects in the 70s could mimic a more diverse set of naturally occurring sounds and human experiences – everything from echoes in a concert hall or cave to the illusion of water rushing down a riverbank.
As this realm of contemporary music started to become recognized as momentary encapsulations of the vast human experience, not just the same tropes or chords over and over again, I noticed my identity change with it in a similar fashion. Genre struggled to inform my music. The informing came from within, not from external factors, just as one grows into adulthood and figures out intrinsically who they are as opposed to trying to spend time being like or modeling after someone else. I didn't initially know what to do with my plethora of R&B, rock, and latin influences in addition to the jazz that vibraphone brought on, and my identity was in a similar place. At age 14 or so, I hadn't built enough of my individual voice and experiences yet to be comfortable with that alone. I defined myself by categories, people, or social norms that pre-existed and were external forces of influence. I wanted to dress like my popular, edgy friend from El Cerrito, play vibraphone like Gary Burton or Bobby Hutcherson, smoke weed in the park like the teenagers in movies. My compositions subsequently existed in predetermined genres, conventional chord progressions, what I thought I should communicate and feel versus what I actually did. Because of this, I struggled to find my place and purpose in music because all the options I thought I had never seemed to fully encompass a place for my voice. I didn't quite want to be a rock musician, but I certainly didn't want to play straight ahead jazz. Both of those genres had a strong history of deeply embedded misogyny. The discriminatory experiences I dealt with as a female instrumentalist made representing those genres in their original, categorical form a cognitively dissonant and uncomfortably juxtaposing experience. I couldn't explain why bands that I struggled to define as “alternative-fusion” happened to be the ones that spoke to what I wanted to do musically the most.
But the reconciliation of my many musical influences came naturally with the growth of my identity, not defined by everything around me as much as what began to form internally. As time went on, my life experiences, sprawling out into forging my own artistic career, being confronted with sociopolitical obstacles, love and loss, depression, anxiety, a blooming adulthood and maturity, pent up resilience, and over 19 years of memories and learning experiences - grew beyond what could be creatively dictated by 10 or so genres of music. That's when I began to know I wanted to do music – I found that my creativity didn't have to be defined by anything other than who I was, and how expansive something like that is manifested and continues to change and grow throughout one's entire life.
It was empowering to know that around the time I came to learn how to make my music as intricate, deep, and unbound as my identity, I found contemporary artists that did the same thing. Nai Palm was one of them, making her music evocative and relatable in nuanced ways yet so hard to classify in a familiar sense. Pianist Vijay Iyer has graced the covers of Downbeat Jazz Magazine and several jazz festivals, and yet his music pertains to the extramusical concept, identity and sociopolitical narratives informing the music that draws from and melds with his Carnatic background and knowledge of advanced physics from studying at Harvard University. The duo band Knower is recognized as “pop” music on iTunes, yet features advanced rhythmic concepts that are more typical of Indian or Afro-Cuban music, employs jazz-based harmonic progressions, and despite the use of electronic manipulation and effects, maintains naturally funky grooves or inflections that only live instruments and vocals can give. They achieved the perfect reconciliation of emotional command, unique infusion of identity, music informed by special contextualizing narratives, artwork, or current events, and a positive reaction or therapeutic function for the audience. But I don't remember growing up with this music. Ever since I was little, I noticed genre bound music replaying the same narratives. I always thought while listening – I couldn't ever quite hear myself. That's the thing about journeys. And now, I wonder how much more of myself I will look forward to discovering in this infinitely expansive world of music.