Tall placards lean against the back wall of the dimly-lit warehouse. Beneath a layer of plastic, vibrant portraits gaze out: a woman adorned in turquoise jewelry, a dancer mid drumbeat, and a man solemnly holding a wooden flute.
These portraits are Radmilla Cody, Randall Paskemin, and R. Carlos Nakai — three artists under the wing of Canyon Records. Canyon is an independent record label based in Phoenix that for nearly 70 years has specialized in recording and producing music by Native Americans. The label’s artists have been nominated for 36 Grammy Awards, including one for Northern Cree at the upcoming awards ceremony this month.
Robert Doyle, who has owned Canyon since 1992, pulls the plastic sheeting from the portraits and stands back for a moment as if seeing them anew. Doyle photographed and designed the panels for an exhibition on Native American music that appeared at Chandler Public Library last year.
“It talks about, how do you define Native American music? How do you define something like, what is traditional?” Doyle said. “We’ve struggled with that for a long time.” The portraits showcase the artists as they chose to express themselves, whether in jeans or ceremonial dress. Doyle sought to capture the artists as they wanted to be seen.
Doyle holds the unique position of leading a Native American record label without being Native. His father is white and his mother, Filipino. For more than 25 years, Doyle has navigated the cultural crosshairs by letting the artists be his guide. His deep respect for Native Americans in music and his willingness to innovate has led the record label to wide acclaim, including a Grammy win in 2002 for best Native American album and more than 50 Native American Music Awards.
This year’s Grammy nod is in the “Best Regional Roots” category for Northern Cree’s album of round dance songs, “When It’s Cold,” produced by Stephen Butler. Northern Cree has worked exclusively with Canyon for three decades.
Doyle came to Canyon Records in 1981 without any knowledge of Native American music. His advantage was a degree in music composition and theory. It taught him to listen closely and keep an open mind.
“Whatever techniques of evaluation that I might bring to looking at a piano concerto, I would bring to Waila music,” he says, referring to a type of dance music from the Tohono O’odham Nation in southern Arizona. “Do the parts fit together, are they balancing, is the rhythm tight?”
Canyon Records was founded in 1951 by Ray and Mary Boley, who like Doyle were not Native. The couple had heard the Navajo singer Ed Lee Natay perform at the Phoenix Little Theater and became inspired to record music from Native communities throughout the Southwest. At the time, the majority of Native music was recorded by scholars searching for the “so-called authentic” Native American sound, Doyle says. But Canyon deviated from that rigid lens with its first release: a recording of Natay singing Hopi, Zuni, Pueblo and Navajo songs on the same album.
“They said, ‘OK, we’re not going to tell you what we should be preserving. You tell us what you want to hear,’” Doyle says of the Boleys’ philosophy. Canyon continues to sell hundreds of copies of Natay’s 1951 recording each year.
When he purchased Canyon Records from the Boleys in 1992, Doyle welcomed Native artists who wanted to record in nontraditional styles.
“I took this broad spectrum approach,” Doyle said, “partly because I didn’t think myself smart enough to declare, ‘This is all we’re going to do.’”
Alongside Natay’s ceremonial songs, Canyon’s catalog of music by Native people grew to include round dance, powwow, country, and rock. In 2006, Canyon collaborated with a classical symphony orchestra to record a “powwow concerto,” and in 2013, a First Nations DJ group licensed Canyon’s powwow music to produce an electronic dance track.
Doyle’s longest-running artistic relationship is with Nakai, an award-winning Navajo flutist who has recorded 40 albums with the label. Nakai performs the Native American flute in a range of contemporary styles that include jazz, New Age, and symphony arrangements. He has chosen to work with Canyon time and again for the sense of respect he feels the label offers his music.
“I haven’t found other recording companies that would like to work with me on an independent, let’s say improvisatory basis,” he says. “They would much rather have control of what I do, and I just cannot do that.”
Listeners sometimes criticize Canyon’s more experimental tracks for straying from tradition, but Doyle believes they’re representative of contemporary Native music. “Unique fusions like this — those came about because that’s what the artist wanted to do,” he said.
If Canyon recorded only “traditional” music, Nakai says, it wouldn’t capture the diversity of the Native American experience — and could fall prey to producing dry stereotypes.
“I don’t deal with Native romanticism,” he said of his genre-bending flute recordings. “I’m more interested in what the future may hold with regard to American Indian music.”
These days, Canyon is among the last Native American record labels in operation. When the 2008 recession hit, Doyle saw many of his competitors go out of business. Robert Nuss, who distributes Native American music from his shop in Phoenix, says the record labels that he works with put out fewer new releases each year. If Canyon were to close, he says, “it would be a real cultural loss.”
Doyle helped Canyon scrape by during the mid-2000s by downsizing and creatively cutting costs. He first picked up the camera as a way to avoid hiring outside help for album covers and promotions.
Photography became a talent. His portraits of the musicians on Canyon’s label have been displayed at the Arizona State Museum in Tucson and the Pueblo Grande Museum in Phoenix.
With almost every exhibition, Canyon has included a soundtrack to accompany the museum display. Now Doyle’s footsteps echo as he darts through the warehouse aisles; he has a certain recording in mind. Without the music, he said, Canyon’s story is “just empty words.” It’s in the label’s many voices and rhythms that Canyon Records comes to life.
IF YOU WATCH...
What: Premiere ceremony for the 62nd GRAMMY Awards
Date: Today, Jan. 26
Time: 3:30 p.m. EST/12:30 p.m. PST
What: 62nd annual GRAMMY Awards
Date: Tonight, Jan. 26
Time: 8 p.m. EST/5 p.m. PST
Stream online: Amazon, CBS.com (free 7-day trial), Hulu + Live TV
Grammy Hosts: Alicia Keys with performances by Ariana Grande, Billie Eilish, Aerosmith, Lizzo, Jonas Brothers and more
Find out more about the Grammy nominations here.