According to the printed lyrics that accompany physical copies of ᎠᏅᏛᏁᎵᏍᎩ, a Cherokee language album released in latter 2022, the preceding question translates to, “Do you know what I'm saying?" Hip-hop artist Zebadiah cheekily and offhandedly mutters it at the tail end of "ᏗᎦᏚᎲᏍᎦ," a track that is otherwise about big and luxurious living, so the comment seems incidental. However, in the context of the album, it is a thematic Easter egg that tests listeners and rewards the observant ones. ᎠᏅᏛᏁᎵᏍᎩ, after all, is on a mission for attention.
Under the direction of native filmmaker Jeremy Charles in partnership with Horton Records, the album's design aims to spark interest in Cherokee, an endangered indigenous language that depends on new generations to endure. Less than 1 percent of the Cherokee population is reported to speak it fluently, and only two of its three known regional dialects have survived the last century.
ᎠᏅᏛᏁᎵᏍᎩ (or Anvdvnelisgi using English letters, pronounced "Ah Nuh Duh Nay Lees Gi") translates to "performers," and it brings together a dozen of them from far-reaching backgrounds and genres to vanquish any notion that such an old language is too archaic to be relevant. This album pops like a party cracker.
Kicking off with Austin Markham's "ᎣᏍᏓᏫᏗᎦᎵᏍᏓ," a pop number with boy band finger snaps and acoustic guitar set to a crisply produced beat, the album is striking in its modern sound. Tulsa indie folk darlings Desi & Cody build infectious rhythms and smart harmonies on some sitar-accented jangle pop with "ᎭᏤᏩ." IIA's mix of lofi beats, pizzicato synth lines, and bedroom pop femme vocals in "ᎠᏅᏛᏁᎵᏍᎩ" is on par with TikTok-era hits.
The youthful energy on ᎠᏅᏛᏁᎵᏍᎩ is perhaps the LP's most promising contribution to its mission, and it carries over to its more traditional folk tracks as well. Huge talents like Ken Pomeroy, Aaron Hale, and Kalyn Fay have been on the rise for years, and here, they bring their powerful voices and visible platforms to the project. Something about the Cherokee language seems to have inspired an environmental consciousness in these three, too, since each chooses to share a song that meditates on the natural world to work through heavy thoughts.
Veterans from the red dirt side of Oklahoma music are represented in Monica Taylor and Travis Fite. Taylor's "ᎠᎠᎹᎭ ᏗᎦᏌᏬᏍᏗ" has some beautifully fluent spoken moments amidst its dobro guitar and sage vocals. Fite's knack for infusing reggae into his sound proves fruitful on the full-on traditional genre exercise that is "ᏍᏆᏎᏍᏕᏗ."
Despite this seasoned songwriting, the most old-fashioned track on the album is easily "ᎦᏠᎯᎭ" by Agalisiga Mackey, a fresh-faced country singer whose folk yodel seems to be channeling an elder spirit. His voice is well beyond his years, and his bluesy lyrics combine with the fiddle and mandolin of a bluegrass number to create something pretty unique, especially with the vintage-sounding studio work.
Most unique, however, are the album's two closing metal songs. Colby Luper's "ᎤᎧᏖᎾ" draws from Cherokee folklore to capture how badass and epic native storytelling can be, while Medicine Horse's "ᎫᏩ ᏕᏡᎬᎢ" goes insanely hard with a seven-minute protest against assimilation told in dramatic spoken word and guttural howling in turn. It ends the album on one hell of a high note.
There is a needless bonus track that follows immediately: the title theme to animated series "ᎢᎾᎨᎢ," which ᎠᏅᏛᏁᎵᏍᎩ project leader Jeremy Charles directed prior. This pre-existing song is a great little one-and-a-half minutes on its own, but without a proper buffer from Medicine Horse's preceding meditative harshness, its abrupt tone shift causes whiplash, as does its short runtime. Perhaps if someone were to have written a custom instrumental intro to bridge the two spaces (or at least a gap of silence), it would have worked. It is a small misstep, though, in an otherwise staggering achievement.
Of the 12 main songs on ᎠᏅᏛᏁᎵᏍᎩ, three are new translations of previously released songs (with Monica Taylor's "ᎠᎠᎹᎭ ᏗᎦᏌᏬᏍᏗ" taking extra care to rewrite its phrasing altogether). The rest are all new, which is especially enthralling for an album concept that has never been tried before. The hours of coaching and discovery that guided the translation, rehearsal, and recording of these tracks are evident in how naturally the Cherokee language takes to some of these sounds for the first time.
As for its ultimate goal, there is one easy way to prove the album works. Play Zebadiah's "ᏗᎦᏚᎲᏍᎦ" again a couple of times and see if its chorus doesn't stick. This track, which translates to "The Baker," has fun with the notion of making one's own fortune (i.e. dough, get it?) and living large. The Cherokee word for big, ᎤᏔᎾ (pronounced "Ooh Ta Na"), is so catchy in its repetitive refrain over these three minutes that even toddling listeners should have little problem remembering the meaning and pronunciation of ᎤᏔᎾ.
That is pretty fitting because this album is, well, big. Native culture has long been seen through a sepia-tinted lens of the past, told in history books written by descendants of American colonizers. That thinking tends to put modern-day tribes in the past, too, such that it comes as no real surprise that Cherokee is an endangered language. This vital album, however, was not created for The Smithsonian. It is not a document of the past. It lives vibrantly in the present, full of color, beaming with the culture of today and the promise of tomorrow. It also sounds fantastic, and for a project like this, replay value goes a long, long way.