‘First Light,’ by Cheevers Toppah and Kevin Yazzie

Cheevers Toppah is known by many for his singing on a contest pow wow or Gourd Dance drum.

However, he is no stranger to harmonized vocals, gaining a Grammy nomination for his efforts.

As a part of Canyon Records’ recordings “Intonation” and “Harmony Nights,” Toppah – along with Alex Smith and Nitanis “Kit” Landry – took Southern pow wow songs and original lyrics and created a wonderful blend of harmonies. With songs such as “Southern Man” getting requested frequently on American Indian radio programs in southwest Oklahoma, it is no surprise that Toppah took his harmonized singing to sharing and recording another realm of his life – Native American Church songs.

“First Light” pairs Toppah, Kiowa/Navajo, with Kevin Yazzie, Diné, singing peyote songs from both the Kiowa and Navajo traditions. The voices of Toppah and Yazzie, who has also recorded the Canyon album of Native American Church songs titled “Faith,” blend well together, giving both a soothing rhythm and power to these songs.

The quality of the recording combines the harmonized style of peyote singing made famous by the duo Primeaux and Mike. Yet, the depth of sound from the gourd and water drum has a live sound quality, similar to that of the recordings of Tony Issacs of Indian House Records.

The “nine tracks” on the album are in actuality nine groupings of four songs each, just as would be sung within the context of a Native American Church meeting. The first eight pairings of songs include those of the vocable or “straight” style as well as songs with Diné lyrics, with an additional “Birthday Song” that uses Diné and English, saying: “Happy birthday to you / May you have many more birthdays come to you / May the good Lord bless and watch over you.” The songs that are identified as Diné have more of the distinctive harmonized sound to them, while those that are labeled as “Old Kiowa Songs” seem to have more of a subtle hint of harmony to them.

Of the 36 songs included on “First Light,” many of them are older songs, while others are compositions by Toppah and Yazzie. It is difficult to single out an individual song on the album because, in many ways, it would take away from the other songs, for they all work together to take the listener on a journey of sound made with songs and prayers.

If there was one jewel on the album to single out, it would have to be the pleasant surprise of the last four songs, sung a capella by Toppah and Yazzie. These songs not only show how well this duo’s voices blend, but it also gives credence to the strength of the songs themselves that they can be recorded without any musical accompaniment. These last four songs are indeed a reflection of the title – the first light of dawn that arrives as the peyote meeting draws to a pause until the
next time.

The cover features “Instruments” by Art Red Horse, showing a hand holding the instruments of an NAC service in the gourd, staff and fan. The liner notes include a brief history of the NAC and an explanation of its services, as well as brief biographies and credits written by Toppah and Yazzie.

This album is available from Canyon Records, and is highly recommended for the CD collection or the mp3 player.