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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


August 25, 2001 - Issue 43


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Makoche Owners Keep Their Music Business in the Heartland


 by Karen Herzog Bismark Tribune-August 20, 2001

For Makoche Recording co-owners Cherie Harms and David Swenson, success in the music business requires that they dovetail their skills at creating music and creating a market for the music.

Harms, Makoche's self-described "business guy," and Swenson, its music producer, have worked doggedly to make Makoche a well-respected brand name in the music business and a success, though it's half a continent away from the music-producing continental edges of West Coast and East Coast.

And this past year, snagging several Grammy nominations for Makoche-produced music in the new Native American music category has boosted the Bismarck-based firm's profile in a highly competitive industry.

Swenson and Harms' Makoche label turned 5 years old in April; their recording studio in downtown Bismarck originally belonged to Meyer Broadcasting. When Meyer decided to divest itself of the recording studio, the two took the plunge and decided to make a business of the recording business.

For all the distance between here and L.A. and here and New York, the advantage for Makoche to keeping its production facility in the middle of the Great Plains is that it has access to some of the best, most authentic, tribal, folk and native musicians in the world, music born of the skies and winds and grasses and people of the prairies.

The beauty of American Indian music first stopped Swenson hard at a powwow. Fresh from working at a sulky spandexed glitter-rock group's recording session, Swenson was listening to a drum group from Canada and was struck by these "voices from another place, so intense, so much spirit."

"There's not a lot (of barriers) between them and their music -- (moving to) heartbeat and breath."

While Makoche records many local artists, American Indian recordings are pushing its public profile. Interest in folk and native artists is high, evidenced by the creation of that Native American music category at this spring's Grammy awards. As a producer, artists' songs are like your children, Swenson said. "You nurture them."

The enduring appeal of native music is born of the fact that "we are all tribal," in one sense or another, Swenson said.

The very nature of the drum and flute and voice of native peoples is that it is ephemeral; those songs sung before recording existed have vanished except from singer to singer through the generations.

"A lot were lost in the wind," Swenson said. He points to the pioneering work of Frances Densmore from Red Wing, Minn., who in the early 1900s recorded 260 American Indian songs on Edison wax cylinders, preserving priceless pieces of the past. Makoche wants to be a part of similar work, preservation of the music and sharing it with a wider audience. The name itself -- Makoche -- is a Lakota word meaning Earth, but also connoting the inclusiveness of the Earth with all things, Swenson said.

Why here? With a specialized, niche label such as Makoche, there's just a better opportunity to find the musicians here. "I could have gone to Minneapolis, L.A. or Nashville," he said, "But I stayed here. There's the opportunity to do so much more."

For Harms, the business head of Makoche, the past five years have been an incredible learning experience. While producer Swenson plans recording schedules, picks songs, finds musicians and creates arrangements, Harms handles the marketing, sales, distribution and administration of the business, working with retailers and consumers.

"The whole world is getting smaller," she said, "more interested in other cultures." Folk music worldwide is a cultural glue, the teaching of "how we live," she said.

In the past few years, the soaring popularity of other folk traditions, such as Celtic music, has boosted interest in American Indian music. Europeans have lost their tribal roots, she said, and respond to tribal music as a way of touching the Earth, wherever they are.

Making a business succeed is hard and risky. "Lots of people (in the recording industry) come and go," she said. "Succeeding is staying in the game. I hope we can continue what we're doing, to do traditional music."

Perseverance is the key, she said. Most businesses take three to five years to get going, and seven to nine years to hit full throttle. Many give up, she said.

Money and time is the cost, "how much you're willing to put into it."

Harms has thin patience with those who ask, "Why are you still in North Dakota?"

The way she looks at it, the Dakota pioneers who came here survived because they had nowhere else to go.

"They were desperate stock," she said. "I like to say I come from desperate stock.

Makoche Recording Company

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