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Grammy-Winning Musican Robert Mirabal Draws Inspiration from Land

Amy Winehouse and Herbie Hancock might have been the big winners at the 50th Annual Grammy Awards (Sunday, 2/10), but more than 100 awards were handed out to recognize the recording industry's best talents. In the folk music category, the best Native American music album went to Robert Mirabal. It was the second Grammy for Mirabal, who also took home two Native American Music Awards in October for Best Male Artist and Record of the year.

Mirabal has been at the forefront of Native American music for 20 years, blending traditional sounds with rock and roll. VOA's Susan Logue visited him at his home in Taos, New Mexico, and has a profile.

Today, there are dozens of recordings featuring Native American flute music, but Robert Mirabal that wasn't the case 20 years ago. "When I started this style of music, I can honestly say there were six or seven men playing this instrument in the country. There were maybe three or four recordings."

Mirabal grew up in Taos Pueblo, an American Indian community of about 2,000 people in the high desert of New Mexico. He was raised by his grandmother, who helped launch him on his career with a small loan.

"I said, 'Grandma, I want to record my flute music,'" Mirabal recalls. "She didn't understand. But she understood here is this grandson having a dream. And she says, 'Yeah, I'll give you the money.'"

That first album quickly caught on in the late 1980s, when the New Age Movement was gaining popularity. Mirabal says he was seen as "a beautiful young Indian man with long air playing the flute."

But from the very start, Robert Mirabal was interested in exploring different sounds, beyond traditional Native American flute music. "I was influenced by Led Zepplin and Jimi Hendrix and all these different rock and roll artists," he says.

He quickly adapted his own style of music, blending the traditional with rock. "I had no idea there would be an audience for Native American music, contemporary Native American music," he says.

Music From a Painted Cave, telecast nationwide on PBS television in 2001, proved that there was. The program was more than a concert; it was a performance piece featuring dancers and storytelling interwoven with songs.

"I was part of a dance troupe, and I had a good theatrical experience," Mirabal says. "The way that I was expressing myself, it was coming from the dance background, and the way I conducted my arrangements and songs was from the theater background."

And he was always looking for ways to expand the show and make it uniquely his, "beyond Native America, beyond the traditional instrument."

The Music from a Painted Cave tour coincided with the terrorist attacks on the United States, and after the tour was over, Robert Mirabal decided to take a break and spend more time at Taos Pueblo with his wife and daughters.

He rode horses in the mountains, planted corn and beans. The life was far removed from rock and roll, and in fact, that was the appeal.

"The reason I took a hiatus was because I needed to find out if there was something else [other than performing]," he says. "There are many times when I've tried to quit what I've been doing, because it's brutal to become a performer and to put yourself out into that world."

He spent time reconnecting with his ancient culture, working in fields as his Tiwa ancestors did, with a simple hoe.

Our cultural life is unique as Taos people, as pueblo people, but it all boils down to we are the keepers of the land."

But Mirabal realized he couldn't turn his back on his music. His new album, In the Blood, was born in the shadow of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

It's where Robert Mirabal says he draws his inspiration. "You're up here alone all the time. Earth work is to be alone, and to create music, to create art, it's a lonely process."

Robert Mirabal is once again touring with a new show featuring music from In the Blood, as well as stories and insight he has gained.

His first novel, Running Alone in Photographs, will be published in the spring.

Now 40, he feels freer than he ever has, and increasingly interested in other ancient cultures. In the past, his music has taken him abroad to Russia and Japan. He says he would like to do more traveling overseas, to the Middle East and Mongolia.