Journey. Every man and woman on earth has his or her own journey through life. Some paths are easy while others are just a little bit tougher. It is not so much the journey that is important but the things that come up along your path and how you deal with them that is important. Picture a small child, adopted from his Native American parents into a non-Native family. Never knowing the truth of who he really was while growing up and maturing into a young man. This is the story of Paul LaRoche, The founder and leader of the Native American rock opera group known as Brule.
It wasn't until 1993 after Paul lost both of his adoptive parents that he discovered his birth family. On Thanksgiving Day while most of us were watching football and walking off the annual turkey gorging; he met his brother and sister and other family members for the first time. Shortly afterwards he and his wife Kathy moved to be with their new family on the Lower Brule Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
Growing up Paul was a musician who played with several bands over the years. He recorded his first solo LP in 1975. After playing gigs for the next 14 years Paul took a hiatus from his music. It wasn’t until after his reunion with his birth family in South Dakota that he decided to revive his music career.With a new found energy and love for his heritage, he soon created an early version of Brule. Today there are 15 to 18 members at any given time and they tour the United States annually.
I was fortunate enough to meet and interview Paul at a recent show in Pueblo, Colorado. I found him to be a soft-spoken, humble man with a heart of gold. When asked what his primary goal in life is his response was, “My mission is to be a cultural role model, using music to try to make the world around me a better place for all of us.” I think Paul and Brule are well on their way to achieving that goal; Paul was selected as musical ambassador and guest speaker for the 2000 United Nations Peace Conference, held in The Hague Center for Peace. Yes, a humble man with a ready smile for everyone is accomplishing the things as any great role model should.
His inspirational role model continues on "Dakota Life", a television show on RFD TV, a satellite, cable network. Dakota Life showcases a variety of people who lives are unique and interesting with incredible stories to tell.
Paul gleamed with pride when he spoke about all the inspiration people he has met and how honered he was to be able to help tell their story.
Winning numerous awards over the years, it is no wonder Brule has sold over a million C.D’s worldwide.The show they brought to Pueblo was amazing. Although much smaller than last years’ venue, Brule maintained the integrity that is important to Paul and gave the crowd a performance far beyond expectations and it was rewarded with a standing ovation. With Paul on the keyboards, his daughter Nicole plays the flute and son Shane on lead and rhythm guitars and on percussion Vlasis and Lowery Begay, the quality of the show is always the same. Paul’s wife is the “power behind the business” of Brule, acting as the group's booking agent, photographer/videographer and executive producer.
When asked how the group and cd’s have changed over time, Paul answered with, “Starting out over ten years ago, just the record company and myself, we came up with the name Brule because it was my tribal affiliation, Brulé Sioux. We added members and some members left but we always kept the signature name, Brule. Then five years into this, my son Shane and daughter Nicole started to join the band. When that happened, we found there was an audience that particularly enjoyed Nicole's flute primarily as the lead instrument. So I kind of had the idea to do a series of recordings that featured that flute sound, but still had the Brulé band behind it. Now we're starting a series where my son Shane is producing the music and has got more of the guitar sound to it, and that's a lot of where the Tatanka project and some of the newer things are starting to come from.As my son is getting involved, we've started this new series that is now labeled under the acronym AIRO. We've kind of labeled these so people can identify them as either having more of a flute sound or more of a contemporary sound, but really, they all feature Brulé and they all have the Brulé band as the main ingredient.”
The road hasn’t been all smooth and happy for Paul LaRoche. There are political issues that continue to haunt not only Brule but many other Nation groups. For example; one would think that a Native American group, playing music with Native American stories, sights and sounds would have a little bit of an “in” with the Indian casinos. The opposite is actually true according to the band leader. “Casinos have a formula that they use to determine who will play for them. They look at the group, decide how many people the group will bring into the casino and estimate how many of those people will spend or gamble one to two hundred dollars. We apparently don’t score high enough in that formula to make it in.”
Now that we know the story of Brule... we need to talk about their unique sound. Taking traditional music and mixing it with modern technology is not an easy accomplishment. Some roadblocks are the mating of yesterday with today, in a manner that will bring a sound people will like. Other road blocks are.. traditional meeting new, as in; the Lakota way, The wooden flute is considered to be an instrument used by males when courting the women. Nicole overcame that roadblock by breaking a lot of “rules.” In classical flute she learned to make a unique sound imitating the wood flute. Her mastery of the instrument in both classical and traditional forms is an asset the group values and respects. Many fans follow her specifically to watch her grow, evolve and continue to be a pioneer in the group.
Driven by the force of a pair of traditional drums, the music takes on a life of its own when the guitar and flute open up with a pulsing, reverb induced introduction just covering the sound of an old locomotive building up power to start on a journey that will take it to new frontiers on the plains. With the sound of the keyboard carrying flutes and guitar riffs, and the thump thump thump of the double drums, the song tells a story of technology and the changes it brought to the people of the plains. It is a story of progress on one hand and loss on the other. Showing that in life change must happen and along with change comes both good and bad.
The stage show by this veteran group of artists is one of the most exciting and decorative I have seen in a long time. With traditional, fancy, and special dancers coming out to dance in bright colors, feathers and beads. You can’t help but to get lost in the story the dancer shares and before you know it, the song is over and you want more! The buffalo dancer was just awesome! As the music played the buffalo dancer comes out, fully covered from head to toe in a buffalo skin complete with horns. His dance is one of thanks to the Buffalo Spirit. It was one of the most touching things I have witnessed on a stage.
All the dancers in their beautiful traditional robes and regalia combine to give the audience a floor show to remember for a long time. These dancers all work and train hard to bring an exciting show with the goal of entertaining and sparking an interest in the arts, history and dance of the Lakota Nation. If you have not seen them in action, I would highly recommend you do it at your first opportunity.
For those of you that don’t like to read like a stick in the mud I can sum it up for you in just a few words. “These guys bring traditional music, add a little spice and serve it on a plate. It rocks, it tells a story and it makes you feel good.”