On a night filled with songs, smiles and stories, A. Paul Ortega, a famed musician and Mescalero Apache Medicine Man who has played with such greats as Floyd Crow Westerman and Sharon Burch, gave one last performance to an enthusiastic crowd at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, NM. Accompanied by family band members, Joe Tohonnie, Jr. and the Apache Crown Dancers, Ortega performed for over an hour.
Though Ortega’s December 4, 2015 performance was billed as a public performance, it wasn’t a standard concert, per se. Ortega shared his talents to the crowd in the quintessential Native style through storytelling, humor and music.
Though Ortega delivered an enjoyable performance on the 4th, Ortega told ICTMN, it had been about five years since he had last performed due to a series of serious recent illnesses.
“I had a stroke a year and a half ago and I had a heart attack about five years ago.
“I really looked forward to it,” Ortega told ICTMN of his last public performance. “I got all enthused and excited, and I really rehearsed. I got the whole group back together and my whole family was with me. I’m glad, it’s been a long time.”
In the early 1960’s Mescalero Apache musician, A Paul Ortega created a sound that influenced the early roots of contemporary Native American music as we know it today. This respected medicine man [His music]effortlessly fuses his healing traditions with very gentle guitar strumming, the stomp of a bass drum and the mournful cry of a harmonica. His blues-tinged vocals and short narratives draw upon many aspects of Native culture and are in fact a very good introduction to the many traditions of Native people.
After the stroke, Ortega says, “They thought that this show wouldn’t come to be. But, I’m really trying to get back, y’know? During the week, I used to grab a guitar. But, the stroke was the thing that took everything away from me. I had to re-learn how to walk. Right now, I’m walking around with a four-wheeler that’s holding me up. It’s hard, but you can’t quit, y’know?”
Though Ortega’s music is influenced by Apache teachings and traditions, he didn’t start out playing the Native-style music for which he has become known. “We were in Chicago during the late ’50s and I was playing bass for a western band. There was this one guy, he gets up and puts Indian clothes on and he’s jumping around, making fun of Indian music. He throws a cup of water in the air and gets underneath and he says I am now called Rain in the Face. He’s trying to be funny, y’know? It used to bother me. So, one day I got in early to see him. He was a little smaller than me. So, I figured if he wanted to fight, I could take him on. It didn’t happen, but we argued how bad it is for him to use Indians as a way of making fun.
“I said, ‘You’re talking about tradition. You’re talking about religion. You’re talking about beliefs. And, this is what we live. This is what we’re about. It’s not something we just talk about.’ So, the guy says ‘Show me.’ So, for the the next five years I worked to get some background for the music I was talking about. That’s how my music came to be,” he said.
“I sing Indian songs. I’m a Medicine Man. That’s where I get my music. I try to explain to people what it means. It’s not just something they sing. It’s not just something that sounds good. It’s something that tells you about history or about what to be… We have to live what we say, what we do, and what we think, and what we’re about, y’know?
“It’s a self-being. The whole thing revolves around respect for everything that’s around you. Without water, vegetation cannot live. Without water and vegetation, animals cannot live.
Without water, vegetation and animals, human beings cannot live. So, we are all part of them. But, we’ve got to learn how to respect these things, y’know? There’s a lot more to it, but those are the basic fundamentals, if you learn the traditional ways.”
In a career that has spanned more than 50 years, Ortega says he begins and ends each day with a special prayer and song in his language. “There is a little prayer that says you live well. Live well…I live well…we all live well…I hope that you are well.”