Joe Rainey’s Niineta

cover art for NiinetaJoe Rainey is a Pow Wow singer. Though he is a Red Lake Ojibwe, he did not grow up on the Red Lake Reservation but far to the south in Minneapolis, where he still lives and makes music. He grew up in his mother’s home but as part of a community centered around the nearby Little Earth housing projects and the Minneapolis American Indian Center, a neighborhood that’s the birthplace of the American Indian Movement (AIM), and is still a major urban Indian enclave.

Rainey got interested in Pow Wow singing at a very young age and when he was 5 he got his first tape recorder and started recording at Pow Wows and studying the tapes at home. At about the same time his mother enrolled him in dancing and singing practice with a group called the Little Earth Juniors. As a pre-teen he hung out with members of the legendary Minneapolis drum group The Boyz in the Little Earth projects and eventually he helped to found his first drum group The Boyz Juniors. He went on to sing with groups called Big Cedar, Wolf Spirit, Raining Thunder, and Iron Boy, and then got to sing in Midnite Express, a new drum group featuring some of The Boyz themselves. It was a professional group, traveling the Northern Midwest and competing in Pow Wows. On his travels Rainey continued to record other drum groups and study the tapes.

Rainey contributed some backing vocals to a track on Bon Iver’s 2019 album I,I, a situation that came about after Rainey met producer and frequent Bon Iver collaborator Andrew Broder at a Wisconsin festival. Eventually Rainey and Broder worked out a deal to produce this album by Rainey, which combines the earthy, organic sound of Joe’s singing with Broder’s cutting edge turntablist ethos. Broder and his fellow members of the 37d03d collective pulled from Rainey’s trove of tapes, which they heavily process and layer behind and around Joe’s vocals, which in some cases they similarly chop, clip, process and reassemble into something that sounds ancient, cinematic, and post-modern at once.

There’s a lot that I don’t understand about this music, both the Pow Wow singing and the electronica, so I don’t have the vocabulary for much of it and I’m definitely coming to it as a complete outsider. But I find it incredibly moving in ways that are difficult to articulate. I’ve experienced a little bit of Pow Wow drumming and singing, both in person and on the radio, and it’s always an intense experience.

“At first I didn’t know what I could add to Joe’s incredible recordings,” Broder says. “But eventually I came to understand everything is rooted in the drum — even the songs on our record that have no drum, they’re still rooted in the drum.” So each song starts with Broder’s beat, which is often a deep, ultra-distorted things that sounds like it’s coming from a bank of huge broken Marshalls. Many of the tracks also are introduced by or include ambient sound from the Pow Wow arena, particularly the voice of the arena announcer.

To me the most moving pieces here are one that’s fairly elaborate and one that’s very simple. First is “turned engine,” which like most is episodic. (Oh, and nearly all of the song titles here are puns or other kinds of wordplay and many include references to pop culture, sports, etc. This one’s a pun on a scene in the movie Dances With Wolves in which Kevin Costner’s character is accused of “turning Injun.”) Anyway, this one features a lovely melody sung at first alone by Rainey, accompanied by a cello and violin, the “verses” punctuated by booming synth percussion that begins to insert itself more and more frequently as the song goes on. I don’t know if it’s supposed to sound like cannon fire or if that’s just my white guy sensibilities, or perhaps a combination of both. Rainey is joined by Allie Bearhead, who he says in the notes “is a talented singer from Wihnemne, Paul First Nation in so-called Alberta, Canada.” The track also contains samples from several other Pow Wow singers from Rainey’s collection.

It’s followed by the lovely quiet lullaby “ch 1222” on which Rainey’s soft baritone singing is accompanied only by occasional piano chords, a soft synth drone, and what sounds like a sampled heartbeat. “I sing in the tone of a lullaby, the tone I would sing to my kids when they were newborns to help them relax and sleep,” he says.

Another elaborate arrangement is on “easy on the cide,” (that last word short for genocide). In addition to Joe’s singing and a lot of samples and deeply processed drumbeats, there’s a soaring prog-rock type crescendo of noise toward the end that makes this track equally chilling and uplifting. “no chants” finds Rainey swapping lines with samples of the singer from Midnite Express at a 2021 Pow Wow. Lots of electronic scraping and fizzing on “can key” heightens the emotions of the melodic singing by Rainey. The melody and syncopation on “jr flip” give it a bit of an alternative-rock feel. “bezhigo” is a beautifully melodic song that begins with Rainey’s strong multi-tracked baritone juxtaposed against industrial-sounding synth rhythms and static, which are mitigated by the soothing cello and violin of Alistair Sung and Mayah Kadish; a later section features singing by multiple individuals and groups.

The album’s bookends stand out. The first track “jammer from the slammer” is a recording of a chant by a Mike Rainey, I assume a relative, from inside prison. And the closer “Phil’s offering” is another stripped down affair with mostly just Rainey, the violin and cello, and Broder’s production. It was inspired by a scene in another movie set in Indian country, Powwow Highway. The electronic music stretches out and slowly fades as though over a film’s closing credits.

Joe Rainey and producer Broder and their collaborators have deliberately created an aural document that illustrates one of the points Rainey makes in his notes: North America’s Indigenous people were here, they are here and they will be here. The timeless nature of the drumming and singing, coupled with music concrete, post-classical string arrangements, and studio production effects all say past-present-and-future are one.

Likewise, the album’s title Niineta comes from an Ojibwe term loosely meaning “just me,” by which he means he takes sole responsibility for its content. But the inclusion of so many other voices from his tape collection emphasizes that in another way, it’s not just him. Rainey says to think of it as though he’s the guy at the door at a Pow Wow after-party:

“You can think of this like, hey man, if all these people are going to be fucking knocking and I’m the one answering the door, you’re going to realize that I’m not the only one in this motherfucker. There’s tons of people in here. So if I’m answering that door, I want to be like, hey, yeah, come on in. There’s fucking tons of us in here. It ain’t just me.”

(37d03d records, 2022)

Joe Rainey is on Bandcamp | Apple Music | Spotify | Tidal | Amazon Music

Gary Whitehouse

Gary has been reviewing music, books and more at the Green Man Review since sometime in the previous Millennium. He lives in a mostly hipster-free part of Oregon, where he enjoys dogs, books, music, the outdoors, and craft beer, cider, and coffee.

More Posts