Walela: Cherokee Sisters Sing Their Way to Stardom
On February 9, 2002, Walela-the trio of Rita Coolidge, her sister Priscilla Coolidge and Priscilla's daughter Laura Satterfield-sang for their biggest audience, an estimated 4 billion people worldwide, at the opening ceremonies of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games, alongside musicians Robbie Robertson and Jim Wilson. "When we walked out onto the ice, I was standing next to Rita," Priscilla recalls. "It looked like thousands of Indians were there, dancing and singing, and with the snow falling through the lights that surrounded us, I felt like my feet had left the ground. I grabbed Rita's hand and had tears in my eyes. There was so much love and joy coming out of everyone that I felt like we'd been suspended in a glass bubble as big as the world."
"It was so emotional and beautiful, I could feel the hearts of the people around me flying," Rita agrees. "It was so cold that we all had frozen tears in our eyes. The next day Robbie said, 'It felt like the arms of the world had wrapped themselves around us.'"
For Walela, the Olympic performance was a magical moment, but as moving as it was, it was just another step on the long musical journey of these three talented women.
"We first recorded together on one of Rita's albums," Laura recalls. "We did 'Cherokee' (which is also found on their first group album). Robbie heard it and asked us to sing on the sessions for his album Music for the Native Americans (Capitol, 1994), which was the real beginning of us as a group. Since then, the music has been calling us on. I know we're making the music, but the music is making us, too, and it's thrilling to be part of the process."
Walela's self-titled debut album (Walela means "hummingbird" in Cherokee), produced by Jim Wilson and released in 1997, mixed Native, pop and New Age forms in its uplifting message. The recording garnered them the Best New Artist award at the 1998 Native American Music Awards (and Laura the best songwriting award for "The Warrior"), but for their next album, Unbearable Love (2000), the trio decided to produce themselves. "Having three strong women in the control booth did create some struggles," Rita admits. "There were days we weren't talking to each other and days when we couldn't let go of each other, but it made the music better. The struggle produces an energy that pushes the music and our lives to new places."
Take, for example Unbearable Love, which won the Best Recording by a Duo or a Group award at the 2001 Native American Music Awards. It could be called a Native gospel album, a natural category given the background of the Coolidge family. "Our father is a preacher and spiritual leader who saw no conflict between the traditional ways and the teachings of Jesus Christ," Priscilla says. "He opened the doors of the churches he pastored to African Americans, Indians and whites-this was in the segregated '50s-and he blew people away with the purity of his spirit. He also ministered in many black churches, and we grew up singing black gospel music, as well as the country and R&B on the radio, and listening to the sounds of nature that were all around us, so the music comes naturally." Rita jokes, "There are a lot of Indians in that same place, a lot of Cherokee hillbillies."
The trio is currently gearing up for album number three. They're going to self-produce again and are negotiating with interested labels, but the songwriting process is already under way. "I have a home studio," Rita says, "and although I can read and write music, for getting stuff down and not losing the moment I usually make a quick recording, so I have some kind of map. When the three of us come together it will always change-a chord here, a melody there. And we all have our own stash of songs, but Priscilla is my hero as far as writing goes. She's always at it. Not a day goes by without her putting a poem in her journal."
"I've been writing for two years," Priscilla says. "When we get together, we'll throw everything in the pot and then decide what the ingredients are going to be. We work individually, but it takes the three of us before the picture gets clear enough to see." Laura agrees. "There's no Walela without the three of us."
Walela also has to work around Rita's busy solo career. After this interview she left for a tour of Japan, and she often lends her voice to outside projects, such as the recent Shaman's Way, a techno/tribal dance music album on the Soul Food label. And, in fact, Rita's place in musical history would be secure even without her work with Walela. She began singing professionally at Florida State University, where she was pursuing an art degree, playing at frat parties and with a folk group. After moving to Memphis, she landed a job at a "jingle factory" that produced radio ads, where she learned to read music. She then hooked up with some musicians in California, Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett, and appeared on their seminal LP, Delaney and Bonnie and Friends. They introduced her to Joe Cocker and Leon Russell, who invited her to join the "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" tour. Her solo rendering of "Superstar" rocketed her into the international spotlight, playing alongside Eric Clapton, George Harrison and other major rock figures.
In the early 1970s she signed with A&M Records and became a star in her own right with a trademark sound blending pop, blues, rock, country and gospel, with hits like "Higher and Higher" and "The Way You Do The Things You Do." In the mid-'70s, she met and married Kris Kristofferson, playing alongside him on albums and in films (including the wonderful Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid), amassing an armload of gold and platinum records, and two Grammys for Best Country Duet. While she never incorporated the Cherokee language or Native rhythms in her music of this period, she notes, "I looked Native and never downplayed it. To this day, Native women come up to me and tell me my visibility was an inspiration."
Priscilla is currently overseeing the European release of the '70s albums she did with then-husband Booker T. Jones (of Booker T. and the MGs), as well as working toward a new album of her own compositions. She too can look back on a long and illustrious early career. She recorded with Bob Dylan, Stephen Stills and many other well-known artists, and songs she penned have been recorded by the likes of Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris. Laura is also busy with her solo career, writing songs with Robert Mirabal and discussing a collaborative effort with poet/musician John Trudell.
"When people ask me why we're doing this group," Priscilla says, "I remember an old Cherokee woman I met who told me, 'I put your music on and felt peace and healing in my soul and knew that everything was all right.' And I told her, 'We're all ill because we're missing harmony in our lives and on our planet. When we sing in harmony, we become a little part of that greater harmony. That's the reason we do it.'"
j poet of San Francisco is the music editor at Native Peoples. He also writes for Pulse, the San Francisco Chronicle, Grammy.com and the New York Times Syndicate.