Preston Singletary transforms his Tlingit culture through a unique fusion of glassblowing, endangered language raps and a pounding bassline.
It was the 1970s. George Clinton’s Funkadelic blistered the airwaves. Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” had hit Billboard’s top 5, a first for a Native American band.
Like thousands of other American teenagers, Preston Singletary dreamed of life on the stage making music — until a detour in the mid-’80s led him down a new path.
That’s when he took a job as a night watchman at the Glass Eye, a Seattle glassblowing studio. It piqued his desire to create, and he took a class on the art form. Eventually he moved from keeping an eye on the place after-hours to working on the production team.
“The rock star thing didn’t really pan out for me,” he jokes.
Instead, glassblowing awoke a new artistic drive. He’d latch a glob of molten glass onto a long tube, blow through that tube to add air, twist and stretch to reveal the shape, spin to find the balance, cool and heat once more for clarity and strength, and discover a little more about himself each time.
He turned his creative focus to translating the traditional stories and artistry of his Tlingit culture using the rather nontraditional medium of glass. Today Singletary is among the elite modern working artists whose creations are sought by collectors around the world.
Still, his love of music never faded. When he found himself struggling with his sculpture, he’d pick up his bass guitar and focus on funk. When the music didn’t flow, he returned to glass.
In time, he realized the two passions weren’t separate forces battling for his creative energy. They were indelibly linked. That’s when he and the legendary Bernie Worrell of Talking Heads and Parliament-Funkadelic gathered musicians and performers of Tlingit, Haida and Blackfoot tribes.
The band Khu.éex’ was born.
Khu.éex’ translates to “potlatch” in the Tlingit language and encompasses the idea of sharing culture, stories and music. Inspired by Parliament/Funkadelic, the 10-piece band explores jazz, rock and funk fused with spoken word in English and the endangered languages of Tlingit, Haida and Y’upic. Performers don traditional masks and regalia and take the stage to dance, rap and recite ancient tales.
It’s part improv, part storytelling, part political activism.
“Native culture isn’t just about ancient history,” notes Emily Behrmann, general manager of performing arts at the Carlsen Center. “The concert is a living, breathing, 21st-century band playing original music, in the languages of their tribes. It expresses today’s issues and interests but also pays tribute to Native traditions.”
On Oct. 10, 2019, Khu.éex’ will take the Polsky Theatre stage at the Carlsen Center on the Johnson County Community College (JCCC) campus, thanks to a special collaboration between the Carlsen Center Presents and the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art. The band will perform songs from their new album HEEN.
The Khu.éex’ show kicks off the annual Kansas Arts Education Association conference, hosted this year by the Nerman Museum. Its theme is Think Global: Creating Cultural Connections.
Singletary is the keynote speaker. His work “Raven Steals the Moon” is part of the museum’s permanent collection and on display at JCCC’s Regnier Center.
Working with living artists provides arts educators direct access to a primary source. It’s a special benefit the museum can provide, notes Karen Gerety Folk, conference organizer and curator of art education at the Nerman Museum.
“Showcasing an artist who excels on the stage and in the studio will make this conference spectacular,” she says. “Teachers who are skilled at guiding students through visual analysis of a sculpture, textile work or painting will enjoy the multisensory dynamic live performance and perhaps start to see works of art in a new way.”
Catch the Show
You don’t have to be an arts educator to experience this truly unique night of improvisational music and storytelling. Anyone who wants to see Khu.éex’ can come.
“Hearing the music, seeing the dance or theatre of another culture can open a window to understanding and appreciation of that culture,” says Behrmann. “We’re all human beings with the same challenges, joys and passions. Art can express this in a way unlike any other.”
–Colleen Ryckert Cook, JCCC writer