Members of the University of Virginia and Charlottesville community will have two unique opportunities to immerse themselves in Native American culture this weekend.
The Virginia Foundation for the Humanities is presenting Brulé, a nationally renowned Native American rock and cultural music group, for a free workshop and performance Friday and a full performance at the Paramount Theater on Saturday.
Offering a fusion of cultural rock, traditional sound and theatrical dance, the band’s performances are often compared to the electrifying excitement of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Celtic Thunder or Riverdance.
Although Brulé is known for thrilling audiences, its performances are more than just entertainment. Each show is an opportunity for people to learn about modern Native American culture and to hear the band’s message of cultural reconciliation.
“We invited them here because we really want to expand what people know about American Indians,” said Karenne Wood, the foundation’s director of Virginia Indian programs. “What most Americans carry are a variety of stereotypes about native people, particularly that they’re people of the past. An occasion like this is a way of saying that native people are still here and they’re vibrantly engaged with contemporary culture and arts.”
The group’s music breaks down barriers by fusing the sounds of classic rock with contemporary Native American rhythms. At the same time, their lyrics and the stories they tell through performance promote harmony between two distinct aspects of American culture.
“You have to come to terms with the conflict those two cultures have had,” the group’s founder and producer, Paul LaRoche, said. “You don’t want to just carry that burden – you have to come to terms with it.”
For him, finding reconciliation and healing through music is personal. LaRoche was one of thousands of Native American children to be adopted by non-native parents and raised outside of native culture during the 20th century. It wasn’t until he was 37 and both of his adopted parents passed away that LaRoche discovered his Lakota heritage.
“I feel like I am a product of two cultures and a proud son of two mothers, and I found a love and pride for each of these cultures,” he said.
LaRoche was reunited with his Lakota family members 1993, and as a lifelong musician felt an instant connection with the music and rhythms of Native American culture.
“When we were tossed into our new family and new world, one of the first transformations that took place was quickly and whole-heartedly embracing the music from this culture,” LaRoche said.
Shortly after his family reunion, LaRoche conceived of Brulé.
“I attended my first powwow in 1994 and that’s when the Brulé kind of got into my head,” he said. “Somewhere in the process of that weekend I just heard the music of both cultures coming together.”
The group gets its name from an old nickname given to a branch of the Lakota tribe, who are often called Brulé or the Burnt Thigh Nation. It comes from the French “brûler,’’ to burn.
“We were given that name years ago by our good friends, the French Canadian trappers and hunters,” LaRoche said. “The story goes that they observed our young warriors helping our women and children escape a prairie fire. They were carrying them out and so burned their legs in the process.”
Now in its 20th season, Brulé uses its special blend of musical genres to help audiences experience the kind of reconciliation and healing that LaRoche found in his own life.
The group’s songs and performances often include an element of storytelling and audience involvement. Prior to Brulé’s performance Saturday, Charlottesville residents will have the opportunity to ask questions during a Workshop Stage talk and performance on Friday at 7 p.m. at the Tandem Friends School.
The full performance will be held Saturday at 8 p.m. in the Paramount Theater. Tickets to Friday’s event are free of charge, while tickets to the Paramount show on Saturday are $12 in advance and $15 at the door.