Tyson Shay grew up with music that was created generations before him.
Living on the Fort Hall Reservation, he would regularly take part in Shoshone-Bannock tribal traditions. Most of those events also involved traditional songs, played in sync by groups of elders on a large drum and sung in harmony.
Shay left the reservation for a while as a young adult, but was drawn back into the music scene soon after moving back. In 2009 he founded the Medicine Thunder Singers with four other members of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, including three of his nephews.
“We made this group so our youth could have a place to learn how to sing and learn their role in Native American culture,” Shay said.
In the decade since, they’ve performed at the War Bonnet Roundup in Idaho Falls and tribal powwows throughout the region, but this weekend will be their first visit to the Civic Center for the Performing Arts. The group will open the second half of the Idaho Falls Symphony’s annual Red Dress Concert on their own, performing Shoshoni-language music for a packed house.
“It’s kind of a special feature of the program. The symphony is going to leave and let them contribute their own sound to the concert,” symphony conductor and musical director Thomas Heuser said.
The Red Dress Concert is an annual event for the symphony that raises money for women’s heart disease research through Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center. This year’s concert, subtitled “Native Legends,” had already booked a special guest artist in celebrated Navajo-Ute flute player R. Carlos Nakai, but organizers wanted to include local musicians as well. One of the board members suggested the Medicine Thunder Singers to Heuser, who reached out to Shay about performing and got a quick answer in return.
Currently, the Medicine Thunder Singers have eight adult members, most of whom will be at Saturday’s concert. Membership in the group has shifted over the years as some members age out and marry, while other young men move to the area or age into full-time performance. Children as young as 5 play along at some concerts — but are held back from the more serious performances such as the Red Dress Concert — and female backup singers and dancers occasionally perform with the group as well.
One of the newer members of the group is Michael Mendez, although his singing career is as long as Shay’s. After leaving the Marine Corps and returning to Fort Hall in 2002, the two men began traveling the region to sing with other tribal groups such as the North Bear singers from the Arapaho tribe in Wyoming. He had stopped performing after his grandmother died and was only convinced by Shay to join the Medicine Thunder Singers last year.
“I’ve just come back into the powwow world and touched back into my roots. Being able to come back and share my experiences with some of the younger singers has been great,” Mendez said.
Depending on where the Medicine Thunder Singers are playing, they have two entirely different catalogs of songs. There are the traditional Shoshone-Bannock songs the members grew up hearing at tribal events and celebrations, and there are original pieces composed by Shay. He explained that the first category of songs tend to be heartfelt and well-known to the Shoshone audience, while the second are more theatrical and tend to include higher notes for the singers.
The latter set is what the singers will be performing Saturday and what they play at most concerts. Mendez explained that the other pieces of music are too tied to specific settings and traditions for them to be played anywhere besides the powwow events held at Fort Hall or other reservations.
“You have to know what song is appropriate to sing. The younger kids have different songs than you would sing for an adult,” he said.
It helps that most of the singers grew up with traditional music because the members are too busy to practice regularly. The group plays together about once a month during the winter, before they begin touring the country more heavily to play powwows. Many of those events bring in similar acts from all the visiting tribes to play during the ceremonies and dances.
“There’s a participatory aspect to all powwows, so we have to work to make sure we stand out,” Shay said.
The Medicine Thunder Singers have built a reputation over their decade of performance. Last year, the group met Idaho governor candidate Paulette Jordan during an event in Boise and performed at the Shoshone-Bannock Hotel to honor the two Native American representatives who were elected to Congress in November.
Shay and Mendez have performed songs in Arapaho and Cree with other groups, but all of the Medicine Thunder Singers’ pieces are in Shoshoni. Knowing the language that well is incredibly rare. UNESCO listed Shoshoni as a ‘severely endangered’ language in 2011, with only a few thousand elders fluent in it and the majority of those living at Fort Hall.
Shoshone-Bannock advocates have since worked to expand the language’s use. Fort Hall opened the state’s first immersive Native American language school, Chief Targhee Elementary Academy, in 2013. The Medicine Thunder Singers also help that goal, teaching the reservation’s young men how to sing in Shoshoni as well as the traditions and protocols associated with formal tribal events.
While the audience may not understand the language of the lyrics, the performers hope the message of the music will still be appreciated.
“We sing for everybody because there could be people in the crowd who are suffering and our songs could hit them and make them feel better for a moment,” Mendez said.
The EIRMC Red Dress Concert, featuring R. Carlos Nakai and the Medicine Thunder Singers, will be held at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Civic Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets cost between $7.50 and $40 and can be purchased through the Idaho Falls Symphony website.