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The Desert View Watchtower, opened in 1932 and designed by Mary Colter, is an iconic 70-foot tower on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, offering visitors a breathtaking panoramic view of the Canyon and the Colorado River. Because of its size and structure, the acoustics of the Watchtower provide a reverb and sound quality like no other place can. And last year, three musicians took advantage of the historic site’s natural acoustic qualities and its proximity to the Hopi sacred lands to record an audio-visual project of historical and cultural importance, Öngtupqa.

Clark Tenakhongva (vocals), Matthew Nelson (clay pots) and Gary Stroutsos (flute), all renowned musicians in their own right, gathered for one night in the Watchtower and recorded Öngtupqa (the Hopi word for Grand Canyon, literally “salt canyon”)a 53-minute album and 48-minute video/documentary highlighting traditional Hopi music, beliefs and connections to the Canyon. The musicians sat down with Flagstaff Live! to talk about the music and the message of Öngtupqa.

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Öngtupqa was recorded at the Desert View Watchtower on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in October 2017. Photo by Levi S. Davis

Flag Live!: Tell us about how this recording came about.

Clark Tenakhongva: I do recording with Canyon Records from Phoenix, and Matt had heard about my songs through them, and he said, ‘Maybe I’ll go take [Gary] up to Hopi and meet Clark. He might be able to give you more about what these flutes are about.’ So they came to me, and, of course, I had no idea who and what they were. I never met him before, but [Gary] said he wanted to play something for me, and that’s how we connected. He played the flute the first time in my office when I was working at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Then it, of course, evolved into other parts of us now, producing this album Öngtupqa.

Matthew Nelson: I’ve been studying ethnomusicology, the study of indigenous music, for a little over 20 years. Independently, I’ve traveled around the world, studied with great professors, read a lot of books. I have a radio show in Tucson that I host that’s kind of dedicated to indigenous music, and I’ve known Gary for about 20 years. Once [Gary] discovered these flutes and started playing them and fell in love with them, he know that I lived in the Southwest and worked as an archaeologist, anthropologist and was involved in the Colorado plateau, and he said, ‘Help me find out more about these flutes.’

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Replicas of ancient Hopi long flutes said to have date back to 650 AD. Photo by Levi S. Davis

What was so significant about these flutes, and how do they fit into the other instrumentation in Öngtupqa?

Gary Stroutsos: These are replicated flutes that were found in the 1930s by the great Earl Morris from the Carnegie Institute, and he gifted them to the Arizona State Museum in 1957.

I told Clark about them, and the sound resonated with them, and he believes that they’re originally Hopi long flutes, so it’s an honor to be able to play them and have Hopi reminisce about them being from their culture.

Nelson: So what I realized was that this flute, at its peak, [was] being played at around 650 AD. They’re probably a little bit older than that, and they were played beyond that, but that’s when it was really happening which is about 150 years after the ceramic tradition started in the Four Corners region, so if there was an accompaniment for these flutes at that time, it was clay pots because those are much older than skinned drums. So I thought, even though I could use a frame drum or so many different other drums, a real earthy sound to complement that really high ethereal, floating, in-the-cloud sound would be clay pots. That was kind of just a natural intuition.  

Once we met Clark and started to learn a little bit more about Hopi culture, what he shared was that Native people have used clay pots for everything, carrying water, cooking food, storing grains and making music. And that making music part is something that really excites me.

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Matthew Nelson has been studying ethnomusicology for more than 20 years and says clay pots have been used from everything to making food to making music. Photo by Levi S. Davis

Öngtupqa was recorded at the Desert View Watchtower at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. What was that experience like, and why did you decide to record the projects there?

Tenakhongva: I [played in the tower] with the symphony the year before, so it was a whole different setting without the string instruments and so forth, but this time it was just simple instruments, nothing like what’s coming from Europe. It’s mostly from here, from North America, what Natives have always used.

Stroutsos: It was unbelievable. A mentor of mine passed away a few years ago, Paul Horn, and he recorded in sacred spaces, Taj Mahal, the Great Pyramids, Russian cathedral, so I’ve done a lot of recording in sacred spaces.

To me it’s about the importance of the Grand Canyon to the Hopi people, and the music accents it, and the fact that we got into the Watchtower was pretty special.

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"It's an honor to be able to play [the flutes] and have Hopi reminisce about them being from their culture." Gary Stroutsos and playing the replica Hopi long flutes. Photo by Levi S. Davis

Nelson: That was an incredible experience because the three of us had never played together before, and I knew that we only had one evening—the permit was only good for one night. We got in there, just the three of us, a national park ranger to keep an eye on us, there was a sound engineer and a video guy just to kind of capture the experience.

The most inspiring thing about where we were was the view, because we could look out at sunset and see the Grand Canyon from the Desert View Watchtower, which is phenomenal and is also in an area which is very significant to Hopi culture because near that Colorado River gorge is that place of emergence, where the Hopi believe they emerge from the third world into the fourth world.

Just like a clay pot, the Desert View Watchtower is acoustically superior, more so than most places I’ve ever been. So when we were in there, the acoustics were just perfect. It was like being inside of a cathedral.

Tell us about the music of Öngtupqa. What makes it different than traditional music, and where does that inspiration come from?

Tenakhongva: I would say it’s a revival, probably, of what was sung 500 years ago or the way it was done. To other people it’s probably a whole new genre of music. To me it’s not, because we’re still using the same instruments, it’s just in a different little style of it, but we’re still using the same Hopi words. The composition is pretty much the same except it’s more a cappella than it is singing anything like a pow wow. Being raised a Hopi I’ve always been raised around the culture and that was the first thing I was exposed to, our songs.

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"We can't create rain. We can't create wind. That's the act of nature, and people need to understand that there is a lot higher authority than who and what we are." - Clark Tenakhongva of Öngtupa. Photo by Levi S. Davis

Nelson: This music is not heard often. It’s such a low frequency that you feel it a lot more than you hear it, and that is what I love about music where I don’t understand the lyrics to. I don’t speak Hopi, so when Clark is singing I’m not picking it apart with my brain, thinking about what he’s singing about, I’m just listening and feeling, and I think those drums kind of do the same thing. They’re mysterious enough to where you’re not looking for a set rhythm, you’re more just feeling the way that it’s coming through.

In that regard, a lot of these songs almost have this impressionistic quality to them.

Nelson: Traditional music, worldwide, is usually either an artistic expression or it’s mimicking nature, and many of Clark’s songs are both of that. It’s raindrops and sheets of rain and butterfly clouds, all these natural elements.

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Matthew Nelson has been studying ethnomusicology for more than 20 years and says clay pots have been used from everything to making food to making music. Photo by Levi S. Davis

Stroutsos: Right, and with the silver flute I’m playing actual notes, but here I’m trying to play sounds that aren’t flute notes, they’re butterfly clouds, or I’m overblowing tones. I’m trying to do a woodwind natural-sound thing. It’s a whole other world.

Tenakhongva: [These songs] honor the Creator and those that have higher powers more above any human being. We can’t create rain. We can’t create wind. That’s the act of nature, and people need to understand that there is a lot higher authority than who and what we are. Our life cycle depends on water and rain and the corn that we grow every year, and that’s the reason, in any kind of Hopi song, it’s always going to be related to rain and water, the crops, the beauty of the land, the flowers that flourish throughout, the waterfalls, all these things. In Hopi we’re not supposed to do any songs that are negative unless you’ve been asked to do that something like that to remind people, ‘You need to get back into way of good life.’

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Öngtupqa is the Hopi name for the Grand Canyon, literally translating to "salt canyon." Courtesy image

You’ve mentioned the album and video were created with regard to the proposed Grand Canyon Escalade bill which is now dead. Considering that, is there still a message you’re trying to convey with the album and the video accompaniment? What are you hoping people take away?

Nelson: I think one of the hopes is that it will allow people to connect with the Grand Canyon on a deeper level, because just by looking at it or hiking into it, you have that experience in the Canyon, but then by learning a little bit more about traditional cultures and how people who have been living here for over 10,000 years, how they connect to the Canyon and what it means to them, that deeper level, that’s my goal.

Tenakhongva: I hope it educates people why the Grand Canyon is important to, not only the Hopi, but all the Native tribes here in northeastern Arizona, why we still want to continue the protection of that. If visitors go there, view it with respect, not just to go over there, take selfies and so forth. It’s a spiritual place to us. So go there and be mindful about that.

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Matthew Nelson, Clark Tenakhongva and Gary Stroutsos of Öngtupqa. Photo by Levi S. Davis

To learn more about Öngtupqa, visit www.ongtupqa.com.

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