Composing a bridge

Native American songwriter Bill Miller will bring his brand of peace-making to Israel.

Bill Miller 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Bill Miller 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Beware, we may never be the same after next week - that is, at least, if Bill Miller has anything to do with it. Miller is a 54-year-old Native American musician who will be performing his Grammy Award-winning composition The Last Stand with the Kibbutz Chamber Orchestra around the country, between March 14 and March 21. "I am not coming to Israel just do another gig," states Miller from his home in Nashville, Tennessee. "My music is pure and I want Israel to know I am the real thing. I greatly appreciate Israel bringing me in to perform my music." In our post-modern global village it may, by now, sound somewhat hackneyed to preach music as a means of bridging political and cultural divides and other differences, but when Miller discusses these issues, you don't doubt his sincerity or intent for a second. "People have tried to drag me into politics - sort of the Indian boy who's made it, sort of thing. But I see myself more like doing what Bob Marley did, when he brought rival Jamaican politicians together." Marley's big gig took place at the One Love Peace Concert, held on April 22, 1978 at Kingston's National Stadium, when he brought warring Jamaican politicians Michael Manley and Edward Seaga together onstage in a token gesture of reconciliation. Miller grew up on an Indian reservation in Wisconsin on a rich cultural and musical diet. When he was nine years old, his grandfather took him on a six-week camping trip in Montana, which took in a visit to the Little Bighorn monument. "That was when the seed for The Last Stand was sown," Miller recalls. "I wanted to do something that would honor the fallen in the battle, on both sides." It was also around that time that the Beatles crossed the Atlantic for the first time. "The Beatles coming to the States inspired me to pick up a guitar for the first time. I think I knew I was going to be a musician from then on." MILLER'S ETHNIC musical endeavor was put on the side for quite a while. He went to arts school, played in a rock and roll band, and eventually began making a living doing cover versions of a wide range of rock, pop and other material in clubs and bars around the Midwest, playing numbers by the likes of Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, James Taylor and Chuck Berry. But, after a while, that became a bit tiresome. "Around 1980, I got fed up with that and I realized I should be playing music from my own cultural heritage," Miller recalls. He duly dropped the cover material and started trying to eke out a living playing music in which few, at the time, were interested. "I played at colleges all over the place, but it was hard making ends meet back then. It would have been easier, financially, to have carried on with the covers. But I felt I'd turned into a human jukebox." That was the start of the road that eventually led to The Last Stand, fame and Miller's epiphany. "You know you can get stuck in historical trauma. Today people talk a lot about tolerance, but I don't believe in that. I believe in acceptance. I didn't 'tolerate' the idea of living with my wife for the rest of my life when we got married. I tolerate the wind and the rain, and a flat tire. But we must be accepting of people. I'm not coming to Israel to be tolerated. I am coming to be blessed and to bless. "Tolerance and assimilation does not work." Miller is painfully aware that is easier said than done, but says the rewards are immense, and tangible. "Reconciliation is not an easy process. I had to reconcile with my alcoholic and violent father. I had to reconcile with his memory when he died, and I won the Grammy in the same year. I couldn't have won it without that reconciliation." Winning a Grammy has made a difference to Miller's life and career, but he says it has had a wider knock-on effect. "I was a keynote speaker at an event at the White Earth Indian reservation soon after I won the Grammy. The speakers ahead of me talked about historical trauma, but I heard no solutions from them. People in the audience wanted to see the Grammy. I showed it to them and said: 'This Grammy is a symbol of victim to victory.' People in the audience were in tears and gave me a standing ovation. "This is what an Indian boy can do. Our people need to make the transformation of victim into victory more. The symphony is music, but I want to leave Israel leaving a human message behind that affects a nation. I want to be part of affecting transformation of the soul." Miller will play guitar, flute and sing in The Last Stand at his concerts here, and the work will be conducted by his longtime collaborator Amy Mills, who helped Miller traverse a steep learning curve en route to the Grammy-winning work. "I knew nothing about classical composition when I started with this, Miller admits. "Amy and other people, like Joshua Yudkin who cowrote the composition, helped me a lot. You have to be very precise with classical music, but there are parts in the concert when I can go off the page, and the orchestra provides the backing. It's like the biggest rhythm section in the world." Bill Miller and the Kibbutz Chamber Orchestra will perform at Kibbutz Givat Brenner on March 14; the Tel Aviv Museum on March 15, Kibbutz Ein Hahoresh on March 17, Ein Hashofet on March 18, Heichal Hatarbut in Petah Tikva on March 19 and Givatayim Theater on March 21.