Minneapolis Native Joe Rainey thankful to be ‘elevating powwow music’

Amid the mishmash of indie-rockers and electronic acts at Bon Iver’s Eaux Claires music festivals in the late-2010s, Joe Rainey and his dramatic style of singing and drumming stood out like a loud wolf’s howl on a still summer night.

“The thing that really struck me was the physical intensity of powwow singing, the natural volume,” Minneapolis multi-instrumentalist Andrew Broder recalled.

A half-decade later — with help from Broder and the attention he earned at those festivals — Rainey is standing out in a way that has garnered him national recognition and made people rethink powwow music, or at least recognize its unique power.

In a lengthy August article titled “Upending Expectations for Indigenous Music, Noisily,” the New York Times described Rainey’s new album “Niineta” as “layers of powwow songs [set] to industrial-strength drums and blizzards of static.” Influential music news site Pitchfork also praised the record for “fusing powwow melodies with the timbres and rhythms of the 21st-century city: techno, industrial, hip-hop, dub, noise.”

Returning to south Minneapolis to perform at the Decolonize Thanksgiving benefit concert Friday at the Hook & Ladder — near the Little Earth of United Tribes housing complex where he spent much of his youth — Rainey sounds humble about the attention but also confident he will make his fellow Ojibwe and other Indigenous people proud.

“The sword I am willing to die on is elevating powwow music and changing the vision of what it is,” he said by phone from Oneida, Wis., where he has lived for the past decade.

Don’t misunderstand him: He loves traditional powwow music and isn’t dissing it.

“Powwows are social events open to anyone who wants to participate,” said the 35-year-old musician and father of five. “That’s what’s beautiful about them.”

But it was hard to enjoy that communal beauty during the COVID-19 quarantine, when all powwows and other big social gatherings were put on hold.

Rainey said he was “feeling trapped and powerless” without the chance to perform in drum groups. Via regular trips to visit family on the Red Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota most summers during his youth, he had been attending, tape-recording and eventually performing at powwows since around age 8.

So Rainey scratched his itch to sing and create music during quarantine with help from Broder. The bandleader of the Cloak Ox had mastered tape-looping and home-recording techniques with his experimental electronic act Fog and was one Rainey’s collaborators in those Eaux Claires performances — some done while parading the grounds unamplified, some on a stage deep in the woods.

“There was some real fusion happening at Eaux Claires, whether it was playing with Low or with Broder or just us parading around. It was a test, an experiment,” Rainey said.

“Having that in my mind and seeing what could be done set aside a place in my mind of the possibilities. And I kept it there in my mind until quarantine came around. I had the time to tap into that creativity, bring out that storage case.”

He began experimenting with electronic recording gear and brought the test results to Broder, who then started inventing his own rhythmic loops and other instrumental parts that Rainey would then sing over.

“Joe’s melodies and energy dictated everything that came after,” Broder said.

The end results are at once alluring, haunting, hypnotic and cathartic. Songs like “Bezhigo” or “Easy on the Cide” feature frayed, trip-hop-gone-tribal beats and dense layers of droning strings, electro-fuzz and piano behind Rainey’s variously mournful, angry and/or combative voice.

The album title “Niineta” (pronounced “nee-NAY-tah”) is Ojibwe slang that means “Just Me.” Rainey is quick to credit Broder as co-creator of the project — “I knew he’d bring the noise factor I wanted” — but it was still a personal and solitary album for the powwow singer used to group settings.

Rainey sings wordless melodies and sacred-note-style vocal lines born out of traditional powwows. He doesn’t call them “chants”; he even titled one track “No Chants” for that reason (and as a play on “no chance”). They’re just songs to him, ones that mourn friends who died young or confront injustice or offer whatever he felt coming out of the music.

“There are all kinds songs born out of powwows, and many, many people in the tribal community who are better powwow singers than me but will never get written up in the newspaper,” he said, and then referred back to the communal aspect of the tradition. “Everyone is invited to sing.”

He’s proud of the tradition, but you won’t catch Rainey performing in feathered headdresses or pretending to be the foremost purveyor of traditional Ojibwe life.

“Man, I’m an urban Indian,” he said. “I can teach you a good jump shot. I can’t show you how to run a sweat lodge.”

He grew up a few blocks from Little Earth in the Seward neighborhood and attended Minneapolis South High School. Among his classmates was rapper Tall Paul, one of Minnesota’s leading voices in Indigenous hip-hop.

With his dueling backgrounds being raised in “Anglo schools” and in “res dog life” (his words), Rainey believes he’s a good fit to perform at Friday’s Decolonize Thanksgiving concert at the Hook & Ladder. The fundraiser gig for First Nations Kitchen is being promoted as “a different perspective on the holiday” as well as a fundraiser.

“I had to study the European perspective about Thanksgiving, and I know that isn’t the real story,” he said. “We need to do better presenting those alternative perspectives, and Thanksgiving is just a gateway to that.”

The concert will also feature Indigenous singer/songwriters Keith Secola and Annie Humphrey, and it’s led by Americana rocker David Huckfelt, who is also the co-organizer of Duluth’s Water Is Life festival with Native activist Winona LaDuke.

Huckfelt also believed Rainey was a good fit for the gig after hearing his album: “It feels like you’re being taken on the warpath with them, and the enemy is every cliché and convention you’ve ever heard about Indigenous people and Native music,” he said.

Rainey himself didn’t describe it as a war, but he did say he’s on a new path after he mentioned offers to perform at music festivals next year and other opportunities coming his way. One newly announced gig: He’ll perform with Broder at the Cedar Cultural Center on Jan. 26 as part of the Great Northern Festival.

“I don’t know where this musical path is all going to lead, or who all is going to notice,” he said. “But I do feel like I’m onto something.”

Decolonize Thanksgiving Concert

With: David Huckfelt, Keith Secola, Annie Humphrey and Joe Rainey with Andrew Broder.

When: 7:30 p.m. Fri.

Where: The Hook & Ladder Theater.

Tickets: $20-$25, thehookmpls.com.

By Indana