Honors Series: ETHEL and Robert Mirabal

Keenan Thungtrakul/ The Avion Newspaper

Keenan Thungtrakul/Senior Reporter

On Wednesday evening, the Honors Series hosted the musical group ETHEL along with three-time Grammy Award winner Robert Mirabal as part of International Education Week. ETHEL is a string quartet that was established in New York City in 1998. As stated in their official event pamphlet, ETHEL quickly gained a reputation as one of America’s most adventurous string quartets, finding new paths in music and seeking creative expression forged in the celebration of community. According to a biography provided by ETHEL, Mirabal is a Native American musician and instrument craftsman who lives a traditional life with his family at the foot of the sacred Taos Mountain range in northern New Mexico. The village holds on to customs and lifestyles that date back centuries. The village itself is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a US National Historic Landmark. Mirabal is of the Taos Pueblo people, one of many tribes of Pueblo people who reside in the southwestern United States. Mirabal travels widely, playing music he learned from his tribal roots across the globe. He first learned the art of making traditional wood flutes from his grandmother and had the chance to meet renowned flute player R. Carlos Nakai, who said to him upon seeing his hands, “I have that same scar. It’s the scar of the flute maker.” Over the years, Mirabal evolved his flute crafting art and has become an accomplished writer, composer, dancer, actor, painter, and performer. His travels are reflected in his music. He merges his indigenous melodies with those of other cultures, tapping into a planetary pulse that allows him to empower audiences with his performances.

Wednesday’s performance featured one of ETHEL’s new releases, The River. Inspired by water, the embodiment of the native spirit, the album immerses the audience in a flow of music, narration, and ritual that evokes timeless Native American traditions through contemporary music. The various pieces combine to tell a story, that, as stated by Mirabal in an interview with The Avion Newspaper, “As long as the story is from a place of honor, the musicians can convey it in a powerful manner.” The beginning of the story embraces our connection with the earth through the description of an age-old tradition where young Taos Pueblo mothers would journey up the sacred mountain to seek a certain flower to bring back. The ritual, says Mirabal, is a metaphor. We are connected to the earth, and we have to honor it like it is a parental figure.

This creates a deep sense of humility and understanding. ETHEL reflected this connection strongly through the replication of nature’s sounds on their instruments. Violas, violins, a bass drum and a cello were used to replicate various sounds from insects to flowing water. These were accompanied by Mirabal on one of his flutes or other instruments he’s collected from his adventures. Towards the end of the performance, Mirabal performed a special ritual over corn kernels harvested from his village. Placing four ears in the cardinal directions, he pronounced a blessing over the kernels and invited the audience to come up and collect some kernels to put in their own sacred places. The blessing he placed over the kernels extends to the people receiving them, allowing them to share in the Native tradition. This ritual served as a great closing to the show as it left the audience with a positive mindset coupled with an ages-old blessing that is sure to ring memories every time we glance at the kernels of corn.