Seattle band Khu.éex’ celebrates indigenous culture through music

(Photo by Russell Johnson, courtesy of the artist)

Tlingit glass artist Preston Singletary is renowned for visual art. But later this month, he will showcase his musical side. His band Khu.éex’ blends genre and tradition to celebrate indigenous culture through music and storytelling.

The Seattle-based band Khu.éex’ is a super group of indigenous artists with a keyboard player at the center of the sound, known as the “Wizard of Woo.”

That’s Bernie Worrell, the Talking Heads keyboard player and founding member of Parliament Funkadelic. He was in his late sixties when he met Singletary. Worrell, who is Cherokee, was intrigued by Preston’s Native funk band, The Little Big Band.

The pair kept in touch, and in 2014 they started recording together, with Worrell’s improvisational playing becoming the framework for Khu.éex’.

In 2016, Worrell was diagnosed with cancer, and Singletary invited him to record one final session while he was undergoing treatment. “You know, he didn’t want to just wait around for the inevitable,” said Singletary. “He wanted to be around artists, he wanted to be around friends and, you know, just take his mind off what he was going through.”

After Worrell’s passing, the group suffered the further loss of founding member and master Chilkat weaver Clarissa Rizal, who sang traditional songs and shared cultural guidance with the project. On their debut album, “The Wilderness Within,” Rizal performs her poem, “To Her Grandmother.”

(Photo by Russell Johnson, courtesy of the artist)

“That was another huge, devastating loss for me, because she was such a close friend and taught me so much about, you know, Tlingit culture and context within all the dynamics of the community from all around Southeast Alaska,” said Singletary.

Though they’ve lost key members, Khu.éex’ has continued recording music. Their third album is titled “Héen,” which translates to “water” in Tlingit. The record addresses issues of offshore oil development and the “water protectors” who protested at Standing Rock.

Singletary said he’s excited to bring this music “back to Alaska,” but the upcoming performance hasn’t been without controversy.

Some have questioned use of the word “Khu.éex’” — which translates to “potlatch” in the Sealaska Heritage Institute Tlingit dictionary. But some believe it’s a sacred word and question the band name and elements of their performance used outside of ceremony.

Their concert will host Sitka jazz percussionist Edward Littlefield and vocalist Stephen Blanchett, who is a member of the Yupik musical group Pamyua. Local artist Gene Tagaban is a founding member of Khu.éex’ and plays flute and performs spoken word.

The group will perform Monday, Jan. 28 at Centennial Hall in downtown Juneau. The concert is sponsored by Sealaska Heritage, Juneau Arts & Humanities Council and KTOO Public Media.

Listen to Preston Singletary’s interview on Juneau Afternoon.

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