I'm inspired to write about the song Wétiko, off the Frankie and the No-Go Road album, because of a post someone made on Facebook recently. The person linked a live video of Wétiko and asked "sound familiar?"
My instinct, which I believe is correct, tells me that they're seeing a connection between Wétiko and what we see in the actions and words of people in the news and around us today.
Here's the live take of Wétiko, with Sean on percussive and crazy which-way? melodic banjo, and Bill on some serious bad-ass, watch-out bass.
Wétiko became the "villain" in Frankie and the No-Go Road (my album that follows a hero's journey) by way of a professor and friend of mine from U.C. Davis and D.Q. University, Dr. Jack D. Forbes. Dr. Forbes wrote a book called Columbus and Other Cannibals, which had and still does have a big influence in how I see the problem of "evil" in this world.
In his introduction, he writes:
"Many people have examined the subjects of aggression, violence, imperialism, rape, and so on. I propose to do something a little different. I propose to examine these things from a Native American perspective; and second, from a perspective as free as possible from assumptions created by the very wétiko disease being studied. Finally, I will look at these evils not simply as 'bad' choices which men make, but as a genuine, very real, epidemic sickness. Imperialists, rapists, and exploiters are not just people who strayed down a wrong path. They are insane (unclean) in the true sense of the word. They are mentally ill, and, tragically, the form of soul sickness which they are carrying is catching."
Historically, Wétiko, also known as Windigo, Wendigo and other similar names, is a pale, human-like, flesh eating monster associated with famine, from the northern tribes. Wikipedia explains how it is also a concept:
"In addition to denoting a cannibalistic monster from certain traditional folklore, some Native Americans also understand the wendigo conceptually. As a concept, the wendigo can apply to any person, idea, or movement infected by a corrosive drive toward self-aggrandizing greed and excessive consumption, traits that sow disharmony and destruction if left unchecked."
As Dr. Forbes described, it could be seen as a sickness that, if it afflicts you, could turn you into a monster.
I described Wétiko in my Frankie and the No-Go Road "trailer," before the album was finished:
Depending on your own world view and wherever you may be in it, this might not resonate. For me it is a way to frame the insanity we see and feel around us and inside of us. Sometimes, identifying and giving a name to a problem is one of the first steps to dealing with it.
As we're amid a coronavirus pandemic, it is interesting to think about how we are approaching the sickness, (esp. if you also view Wétiko as a sickness.) Can we effectively quarantine ourselves against it? Are there varying levels of the sickness we can acquire and manage okay with? Is there a vaccination against Wetiko, or will it be an ongoing struggle to assess and avoid, like we've been warned about COVID-19?
Later on, after the album was done, I made a video for the song "Resurrection," where I try to encapsulate a journey that involves Wétiko. The battle happens during the instrumental solo, where the hero gets pulled into a black hole. Check it out:
When I recorded that album in Austin, at Rich Brotherton's studio, I took time to explain each step of the journey to the incredible rhythm section -- Glenn Fukunaga on upright bass, and Dony Wynn on drums. I wanted them to actively be on the journey with me through the songs, seeing and feeling what I felt, and they tuned right in. For the second song, Wétiko, I strutted around the room like a rooster, lurked like ghostly demon, and oozed slime like a pimp -- at one point I told them "hey, I'm Donald Trump," who was a presidential candidate at the time. I wanted to be in your face, and then I wanted to disappear into thin air. They got it.
I asked Dony to add all sorts of crazy percussive sounds on random objects, like noise. He closed his eyes and put his hands up and said "Noooooooo. This is a job for the cymbals." He began sorting through the amazing collection of cymbals he'd brought. He was so right. I asked Rich to get some nonsensical, multidirectional, backwards sounding banjo chatter in there, a fun assignment for such a pro player. We pushed it harder in the last verse.
To hear the studio version from the album, use the player at the bottom of the page.
Here's a photo of the mask I made for Wétiko, who (along with our hero, Frankie,) appeared at the CD release concerts. Thanks to Gene Mock for the great photo, taken at Sutter Creek Theatre in Sutter Creek, CA.
I wish I could have shared Frankie and the No-Go Road with Dr. Forbes, but he passed away 4 years prior, in 2011. I thank him in the credits, and gave away copies of his book as a door prize at each of my CD release concerts. I am grateful to him for seeing past my distractions, and holding a mirror to my heart.
He ended his book with this:
"And finally, when death touches, a new path will open up for us, a path faced by most traditional Native Americans with confidence and beautiful thoughts, as illustrated in this old Wintu song by Jim Thomas:
Above shall go
The spirits of people
Swaying with dandelion puffs in their hands."