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Heyókȟa Te Deum: A collision of Native American and Catholic Spirituality by James MacMillan

January 13, 2012 , , , , , , , , , , , ,

By Sioux Chief Black Hawk (born 1832)


I recently found an old recording I made with my former high school choir of the Heyoka Te Deum by James MacMillan. I am not sure how this piece slipped my mind because it is unusual and terrific!

A Heyoka, or Heyókȟa, is a “sacred clown” of the Lakota.

Heyókȟa are thought of as being backwards-forwards, upside-down, or contrary in nature. This spirit is often manifest by doing things backwards or unconventionally—riding a horse backwards, wearing clothes inside-out, or speaking in a backwards language. For example, if food were scarce, a Heyókȟa would sit around and complain about how full he was; during a baking hot heat wave a Heyókȟa would shiver with cold and put on gloves and cover himself with a thick blanket. Similarly, when it is 40 degrees below freezing he will wander around naked for hours complaining that it is too hot.

– from Wikipedia

The Heyókȟa are chosen in dreams. Part clown, part shaman, they symbolize the sacred, the Wakȟáŋ, by satirizing society. They ask the difficult questions by saying things others might be afraid to say so that the community might consider topics not usually thought about, or look at things in a different way.

Heyókȟa are both mirrors and teachers. They provoke laughter in times of despair or stir up chaos when people are too comfortable to avoid the dangers of complacency.

MacMillan’s setting is clever and typical of his style. The Lakota text is set with complex rhythmic cells and coloratura connecting more stable homophonic sections in the trebles. The interval and cell patterns are consistent, despite key and texture changes. This way, MacMillan achieves expressive variety while remaining technically approachable for beginning choirs. The Te Deum is sung in unison to a Gregorian chant-like melody. The Te Deum sections link verses of the Lakota Chant, only intertwining with the Lakota in the coda. The overall effect alternates the florid, swirling visions of the Lakota with the equally visionary solemnity of the Te Deum.

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