Native American fireball punk
Blackfire returns with their combustible mix of politics and music
Posted: February 26, 2009
The Benally siblings put messages of injustice to hard-rock rhythms.
The history of rock 'n' roll, like just about everything in the Americas, is inseparable from the Native American legacy. From the beginning, Johnny Cash, claiming Cherokee heritage, shared Elvis' early rockabilly stage. Gene Clark's Amerindian Midwestern country style lent depth to the original Byrds. Jimi Hendrix credited the storytelling of his Cherokee grandmother as a key to his artistic temperament. James Brown, who claimed in his autobiography to be descended from Geronimo, said the Native American drum inspired his syncopated R&B invention known as "funk." Neil Young of Buffalo Springfield, Rick Danko of The Band, Link Wray … the list goes on.
But few if any rock artists of Amerindian decent have remained as close to the concerns and sounds of the reservation as the metal-punk rockers Blackfire.
Recipients of the 2007 Native American Album of the Year for their work on Silence is a Weapon (Tacoho Records), Blackfire has, since their formation in 1989, garnered respect from their indigenous community as well as the rock 'n' roll world at large. Joey Ramone himself, arguably the co-inventor of punk rock, was attracted to their early work and helped in the production of their first album. In 2003, at what has been called world music's Saharan Woodstock, Mali's "Festival of the Desert," Blackfire shared billing with legends like Robert Plant, Ali Farka Toure and Tinariwen. Arlo Guthrie consulted with the band to help create their 2003 folk-meets-punk CD Woody Guthrie Singles, and in 2006 they joined Joan Jett, the Buzzcocks, the Germs and dozens of other punk luminaries on the infamous 11th annual Warped Tour.
Blackfire was scheduled to perform earlier this week with Billy Bragg at Berlin's 10th annual Musik and Politik festival before returning to Prague for their sixth appearance since 1999. Speaking by phone from the band's home office in Arizona about how their Navajo heritage intersects with the impulsive beat of punk and metal, Blackfire drummer Clayson Benally told The Prague Post, "For us it's about energy. You have a message you want to communicate about injustices, like your grandmother's forced 'relocation' and the U.S. government that still has policies to terminate and eradicate our people. So, sometimes, to shout, yell or scream, add distortion and put some slamming drums behind that, is a way to get those messages across."
When: Saturday, Feb. 28, at 7:30
Where: Rock Café
Tickets: 220-240 Kč, available through Ticketstream and at the venue
Drawing inspiration from the likes of the Dead Kennedys, Subhumans, Black Flag and the Ramones, Blackfire is a family band - two brothers and a sister - whose Navajo medicine-man father trained them early in tribal dances and chants. Although the band is careful not to trivialize sacred Navajo songs with mosh-pit audiences, their music shares some sensibilities with Navajo tradition.
As Blackfire singer/guitarist Klee Benally explains, "When we write our songs, we have a specific intention that relates to addressing social and environmental injustices. So from this perspective, our songs become like this sort of prayer. But our traditional songs, many which go back to the beginning of time, are part of that continuation of our cultural heritage. So there is a definite difference between singing traditional songs and something you just made up."
Beginning their European tours playing at squats and community centers, Blackfire over the past decade has built a dedicated regional following. Part of the attraction has been their skate-punk angst over relocation and military occupation that many Central and East Europeans can directly relate to.
Even though, as Klee says, "We are definitely not a mainstream band," for Blackfire's fans at home and abroad, these three Navajos have made an indelible mark on punk rock music, not unlike the historic Native American rockabilly, folk, funk and blues rock antecedents that are now enshrined in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame.
Opening for Blackfire will be the notorious local band Blaq Mummy, which is dedicating its set to Lux Interior, singer and founder of the legendary punk band the Cramps, who died earlier this month.
Darrell Jónsson can be reached at
Tags: Native American, Blackfire, James Brown, concert.