His Own Drumbeat, the Black Lodge Singers
After more than 30 years in the music industry, seven Grammy nominations and countless other accolades, John Scabby Robe is busy preparing for his next career—that of a teacher inspiring future generations to reach for their own dreams. One of the founding members of the Black Lodge Singers, Scabby Robe is also now a Heritage junior majoring in middle level education.
The Black Lodge Singers is a family northern-style drumming group that performs traditional Blackfeet and contemporary-style pow wow music. When the family started their drumming group in the mid-1980s, the idea of becoming what many consider “the best musicians in their genre” was far from their minds. The Black Lodge Singers was formed out of a father’s frustration at his teen- and preteenaged sons’ behavior at pow wows.
Pow wows are traditional cultural celebrations where families and friends come together to eat, sing, dance and socialize, and often include dancing and drumming competitions. Competing drumming groups are positioned in a circle around an open area where, in turn, dancers dance to the songs performed by each drum group. The drummers are judged based on their drumming ability, their singing and harmonizing, and their overall presentation. Dancerswho follow pow wow music look for new songs every year,” said Doyle.
“Black Lodge is blessed with several very good songmakers. This is part of what makes them so popular.” Three years after recording their top-selling album, Black Lodge recorded the album that would break them out of the pow wow circuit and shed international light on them and the genre of Native American music.
In the world of music, a Grammy award is the top prize any artist can aspire to receive. The awards are given annually by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences in recognition of the achievements of the top artists in the music industry. Groups like U2 and the Rolling Stones and artists such as Adele, Johnny Cash and Beyoncé have all taken home the golden gramophone.
In 2000 the Academy added a category for Native American music, which included everything from the drumming beats of pow wow music to the haunting sound of flute music to the contemporary works of Native American artists. That same year the Black Lodge Singers released their 16th album, A Tribute to the Elders, which included traditional Blackfeet, contemporary-styled and classic songs.
The Academy took notice of the Scabby Robes’ work. A Tribute to the Elders was one of five works nominated for the Best Native American Music Album category. Scabby Robe, his father and brothers were flown down to California for the ceremony. Limousines carried the artists and their families to the Staples Center in Los Angeles, where they walked down the red carpet through paparazzi camera flashes to the loud cheers of music fans calling out words of congratulations.
When they entered the theatre, ushers escorted the musicians to their seats, fourth row from the center, where they were surrounded by some of the top artists of the day—Faith Hill, Brookes and Dunn, Destiny’s Child. Scabby Robe laughs as he recalls Kid Rock tapping him on the shoulder and saying, “Hey, you guys are Black Lodge. You’re awesome.”
“It was wild. All I could think was ‘Kid Rock knows who we are,’” he laughs. “The whole time, even as we were walking down the red carpet and sitting in our seats, it still hadn’t hit us that we were at the Grammys. It wasn’t until the opening act when Madonna came on stage that it became real.”
When the time came for awarding the Grammy in their category, the Scabby Robes sat in the audience watching as their faces were the ones shown up on the big screen with the other nominees waiting for the envelope to open. Ultimately, it wasn’t their day to walk across the stage to collect the award. But, says Scabby Robe, the adage that it really is all about being nominated does ring true.
“It was such an amazing experience,” said Scabby Robe. “And to be part of such an elite group of artists was such an honor. That was something we never could have even imagined happening.”
After this first nomination, the Black Lodge Singers went on to receive six more Grammy award nominations for their work. And, in addition to their Grammy nominations, they were honored by the Native American Music Awards, receiving the Best Pow Wow Album (1998), the Debut Group (2000) and the Best Pow Wow Music (2004). These awards were founded fifteen years ago to recognize the contributions of Native American artists to the music industry.
Ask Scabby Robe about all of his family’s successes, and he answers with humility. For him, the awards, the album sales and the accolades are nice, but not what the Black Lodge Singers are all about. Drumming and singing are spiritual.
Dad always said, ‘No matter what accomplishments you have in your life, don’t let it precede your teachings,’” he recalled. “When we go to the drum, we do so with a pure heart and body. We leave all negativity behind.”
These lessons, living a life free from negative influences of drugs and alcohol, honoring your culture, and committing to doing your best to develop the talents you have, are all messages he and his brothers are teaching their sons and nephews as they join the Black Lodge Singers. And they are messages he hopes to one day instill on the young minds that he will influence as a middle school teacher.
While Scabby Robe does continue to sing and play with the drumming group, after so many years on the road, he is ready to build his second career closer to home. He chose to study middle level education because he feels he has the greatest potential to reach and make a difference with kids in those transitional years between elementary and high school.
“Kids in these middle school years have a hard time identifying who they are,” he said. “And in such a diverse cultural student body, I hope that I can connect with students through my experiences.”