Preston Singletary is an internationally recognized blown-glass artist who lives and works in Seattle. He uses his art to share the traditions of his Tlingit culture. But over the last few years he’s been working on another project as a way to communicate those Native traditions. Only this time, it’s with music.
Singletary is in a band called Khu.eex along with saxophonist Skerik and drummer Stanton Moore. Even the legendary keyboard player Bernie Worrell took part before his death in 2016. Khu.eex (pronounced: koo-WEEKH) is a Tlingit word meaning “potlatch.”
“It’s a sharing of culture. It’s a sharing of history," Singletary explained. "It’s a sharing of music and dance and stories.”
Singletary was a musician first and blown-glass artist later. He started playing the piano at age 11.
“And I was really attracted to Scott Joplin’s music and it was because of the complex rhythms,” he said.
He went on to learn to play the bass and fell in love with rock, soul and funk. All those genres helped create the band’s sound. Two of the biggest influences: Songs from his Native American background and funk.
“I’ve always wanted it to be, like, the Native Parliament Funkadelic, where you’ve got 15 people on stage and dancers, and coming out with masks and costumes, and everybody has to be top of their ability, virtuoso players,” he said.
“Funk music embodies the best of soul, dance, jazz, rock and even gospel music. Using those genres and focus through this Native lens, I think that it brings a new opportunity to innovate and create something new.”
But creating something new isn’t simple, especially when you’re using traditional Native songs. The songs, dances and objects used to record and perform belong to certain clans. Singletary says he had to ask permission of tribal elders to make this band a reality.
“We knew that we should go back to the elders and tell them what we were up to and ask, ‘Is it okay if we use this song?’ We did get a lot of support for a few of the tracks. And there were certain clan songs that were maybe a little too sacred to actually use in sort of an entertainment context,” he said.
The songs from the band’s first album aren’t just riffing on traditional songs. One of the band’s vocalists, Nahaan, lets the traditions inspire his storytelling. The lyrics to this song are all written out in the album in Tlingit and translated into English.
This practice is another important piece to how Khu.eex shares culture. The group is trying to preserve the Tlingit language with these songs.
“Nahaan, actually, he can rhyme in Tlingit. So he does sort of a freestyle both in English and Tlingit, which is really a very cool component of the group because it does kind of resonate with the youth," Singletary said. "So we were hoping that this would be an opportunity for the youth to latch onto this.”
The Tlingit language is endangered. Singletary says a handful of elders have tried over the last two decades to create a written form to help save it.
He explains having a part in preserving his culture and language is incredible. But being able to bring all this with a new audience? That’s more than he could have hoped for.
“We’re trying to be this entertaining funk group, but then all of a sudden ‘What’s he singing?’ They don’t realize this is a 300 year old song that’s being re-interpreted," he said "So there’s something in the nature of that power. I didn’t ever imagine that I’d ever be able to pull this off.”
But he has with the help of some friends and support from tribal elders.