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June 19, 2006

Native American singing group harnesses spirit

Billings Gazette :

The Ulali singers coo crisp, clean, a capella harmonies where single words seem destined to live in a world of timeless melodies, where songs evoke beauty and emotion. "What I admire most is the soul," said Michelle St. John, a Toronto-based actor and singer. "They're instantly recognizable even if it's just an opening note. They're so distinctive. There's this magic that happens. "I still get goose bumps even after all these years," said St. John, who has performed and recorded with the group. "They're masters at what they do."

For nearly 20 years, Pura Fe, Soni Moreno and Jennifer Kreisberg have developed the sounds of Ulali (pronounced you-la-lee).
The group was born from Pura Fe, a Tuscarora who started a singing group through the American Indian Community House in New York. The once rock-jazz fusion group developed the sound it has today after Pura Fe decided to do a show without the entire band. She took the performance down to a single drum and only a few voices. She asked Moreno, who is Apache and Mayan, to be a part of that show. When Pura Fe's younger cousin, Kreisberg, joined the duo a few years later, Ulali was born.

Today, the group borrows traditional and contemporary sounds from tribes throughout the Western Hemisphere. "Their work is brilliant," said St. John. "It's their arrangements. The way they use their voices. The way they construct their songs. The notes they choose tap into an emotional plane. "I go, 'Oww! I feel that right here.' I'm a bit of a geeky fan."

But St. John isn't alone with the accolades. Ulali's creative a capella harmonies have made them favored performers around the country. They've shared performance bills with world-class artists, including Sting, Jackson Browne, the B-52's, Bonnie Raitt, Mary Chapin Carpenter and the Neville Brothers.

Ulali, which means the sound of the wood thrush, had several songs featured on the movie soundtrack "Smoke Signals," which garnered top Sundance Film Festival awards, including an Audience Choice Award and Filmmaker's Trophy. The women made their national television debut when performing with Robbie Robertson, formerly of The Band, on the "Tonight Show with Jay Leno."

Ulali women write and sing songs of love, politics and broken hearts, words written to reflect each of their female beings. "I believe sometimes, it's not just us singing," Moreno said. "There's a lot of spirit behind it. We all walk with our ancestors."

Some of those ancestors were singers, too. Kreisberg and Pura Fe -- first cousins through their mothers -- come from a family where the last four generations consisted of seven singing sisters. Kreisberg recently wrote "The Deer Song," a commemoration to her Deer Clan people and the women's voices before her. The song will be featured on the group's upcoming live album.

"Our nation, the Tuscarora Nation, we've lost a lot, but the one thing we haven't lost is the singing," Kreisberg said. "Everybody, just about everybody sings. It's like the whole community sings." Ulali embodies that spirit, which continues to grow and change. Fans can expect new artistic development from each woman.

Posted by acapnews at June 19, 2006 9:57 PM