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Navajo music

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Navajo music

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Native American/First Nation music:
Chicken scratch Ghost Dance
Hip hop Native American flute
Peyote song Powwow
Tribal sounds
Arapaho Blackfoot
Dene Innu
Inuit Iroquois
Kiowa Navajo
Omaha Kwakiutl
Pueblo (Hopi, Zuni) Seminole
Sioux (Lakota, Dakota) Yuman
Related topics
Music of the United States - Music of Canada

Navajo music is the music of the Navajo people and nation, currently in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico.



Contemporary popular

Music requested on the radio on the Navajo Nation is most often rock, country, and gospel music, often performed by Navajo musicians (McAllester 1981-1982).


Traditional Navajo music is always vocal, with most instruments, which include drums, drumsticks, rattles, rasp, flute, whistle, and bullroarer, being used to accompany singing of specific types of song (Frisbie and McAllester 1992). As of 1982 there were over 1,000 Singers, Medicine People called Hatathli, qualified to perform one or more of thirty ceremonials and countless shorter prayer rituals (Frisbie and Tso n.d.) which restore hózhó or harmonious condition, good health, serenity.

These songs are the most sacred holy songs, the "complex and comprehensive" religious literature of the Navajo, may be considered classical music (McAllester and Mitchell 1983), while all other songs, including personal, patriotic, work, recreation, jokes, and less sacred ceremonial songs, may be considered popular music. The "popular" side is characterized by public performance while most Navajo people prefer diyin not be made public (and thus not featured on the recording listed at bottom). (ibid)

The longest ceremonies may last up to nine nights and days while performing rituals that restore the balance between good and evil, or positive and negative forces. Songs, music, sandpaintings, masked performances, and other rituals call upon deities and natural forces to restore the person to harmony and balance within the context of the world forces. The person to be supernaturally assisted, the one "sung over," becomes the protagonist, identifying with the deities of the Diné Creation Stories, and at one point becoming part of the Story Cycle by sitting on a sandpainting with iconography pertaining to the specific story and deities. (McAllester 1981-1982)

The lyrics, which may last over an hour and are usually sung in groups, contain narrative epics including the beginning of the world, phenomenology, morality, and other lessons. Longer songs are divided into two or four balanced parts and feature an alternation of chantlike verses and buoyant melodically active choruses concluded by a refrain in the style and including lyrics of the chorus. Lyrics, songs, groups, and topics are cyclic: the main deity, Changing Woman, is immortal and grows old in the winter and young in the spring. Long myths are also spoken during ceremonies and elaborate the origin stories found in lyrics. (ibid)

The "popular" music resembles the highly active melodic motion of the choruses, featuring wide intervallic leaps and melodic range usually an octave to octave and a half. Structurally the songs are created from the complex repetition, division, and combinations of most often no more than four or five phrases, with short songs often immediately following each other for continuity as needed in work songs. Their lyrics are mostly vocables, with certain vocables specific to genres, but may contain short humurous or satirical texts. (ibid)

Peyote songs

Peyote songs are a form of Native American music, now most often performed as part of the Native American Church, which came to the northern part of the Navajo Nation around 1936. They are typically accompanied by a rattle and water drum, and are used in a ceremonial aspect during the sacramental taking of peyote. Peyote songs share characteristics of Apache music and Plains-Pueblo music. (Nettl 1956, p.114)

In recent years, a modernized version of peyote songs have been popularized by Verdell Primeaux, a Sioux, and Johnny Mike, a Navajo.


  • Liner notes: Navajo Songs (1992), recorded by Laura Boulton in 1933 and 1940, annotated by Charlotte J. Frisbie and David McAllester. Smithsonian Folkways: SF 40403.

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