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ClassicsOnline Home » GREY, M.: Enemy Slayer: A Navajo Oratorio (S. Hendricks, Phoenix Symphony, M. Christie)
The Phoenix Symphony enjoys a long history of premièring new works that bridge gaps between Western art music and Native cultures. Hailed as ‘a master’, Mark Grey ‘is a composer as well as a sound engineer, and what he is up to has far-reaching implications for the direction that classical music will take this century’ (Los Angeles Times). This recording of Enemy Slayer: A Navajo Oratorio is of the world première performance of the first oratorio based on an indigenous North American creation story. ‘Mark Grey’s score is perfectly crafted, impeccably paced, beautifully scored’ (The Arizona Republic).
By David Denton
Mark Grey (b. 1967)
Enemy Slayer: A Navajo Oratorio
Enemy Slayer: A Navajo Oratorio was inspired by the oral literature and language of the Diné people, who are also known as the Navajo people. The first-ever oratorio to be founded on an indigenous creation story, rather than the Bible, Enemy Slayer is based on the story of the two Navajo heroes, the twins Monster Slayer and Child Born for Water, who went to war against the monsters that threatened their people, to protect them, and to make their homes safe. But after the hero twins had killed all the monsters and returned home, they started having nightmares and could smell the blood of the monsters and heard their screams. The twins did not want to be with other people. They lost their appetites. Sometimes they were depressed, and other times they were angry and violent. They even thought of suicide.
The Navajo people could see the twins were ill—nowadays it carries the name “post-traumatic stress disorder”—and prayed to the Holy Ones to heal them. Thus was born the Anaa’jí (Enemy Way), one of the most sacred Navajo ceremonies and one that is still in frequent use to cleanse and heal warriors returning from today’s wars.
In October 2007 the creators of Enemy Slayer, Mark Grey, Laura Tohe, and Deborah O’Grady, said in separate interviews that they wanted the oratorio to be a bridge between the Navajo and non-Navajo worlds. They had been working on the oratorio for more than a year and Grey and O’Grady had learned that the Navajo people have understood for eons that war injures everyone it touches, whether or not those injuries show. O’Grady noted, “It’s about the soul of the soldiers, men and women all over the world. It’s a universal story…that has been going on for all of history. We see veterans on the street…homeless people, drug abusers, very broken people that we haven’t learned how to bring back in. And what’s wonderful about this piece is the hope that it gives for healing.”
In Enemy Slayer Tohe is careful not to refer to Anaa’jí or its details—that would be sacrilegious—but instead writes about its essence, which is love, faith, hope and remembering who you are and by using the Navajo language of healing. Grey, who was the Phoenix Symphony’s Composer-in-Residence, recruited Tohe, an award-winning Navajo poet, to write the lyrics, or libretto, and give shape to Grey’s visionary concept. According to Grey: “When you see large corporate America, like Disney, take a story and basically strip a lot of its cultural values out and then see Enemy Slayer, what you’ll understand is that what we’re doing is the exact opposite. It’s inclusion. Like someone said, it’s the extension of a prayer. It was like a long, long ceremony. It’s just one of those magical moments.”
The seventy-minute piece featured a chorus of 140 singers, a full symphony orchestra, baritone soloist Scott Hendricks, and the Southwest landscape photography of O’Grady projected on a 12-by-21 foot screen. The result was an experience so moving that some audience members shed tears, and no one was left untouched by its depth of meaning.
Seeker, the Navajo veteran in Enemy Slayer, suffers from the same illness as the hero twins. The Western world once called it “battle fatigue”. Clad in worn blue jeans, white T-shirt, and unbuttoned shirt was the soloist Hendricks, whose portrayal of a war veteran crumbling under survivor’s guilt punched through the air. “Brother, I miss you tonight. In my mind I see the mound of earth and the plastic flowers baked by the sun that cover you now.” As the chorus responded, photos of the Fort Defiance, Arizona veterans’ cemetery on the Navajo Reservation, filled the screen with torn American flags waving atop rows of graves under a striking blue sky and white clouds. O’Grady’s photographs conveyed the majesty of Seeker’s homeland, even as they also portrayed his mood.
The nightmares of war that torment him are captured by Tohe’s words and painted by Hendricks in an intensely emotional solo: “The children lay like broken toys spilled on the streets. Red rags. Limbs and dreams rearranged by war. A sister recoils. Bodies and blood for the 21st century monster. I don’t trust the stillness. I wish for sleep, a deep sleep not hammered with gunfire and the click of my nerves, nor the sight of bodies and bloody rags scattered like trash cast to the wolves in the deserted streets. When I’m not looking, they call me a hero.”
At each turn the choir, representing Seeker’s parents, grandparents, his ancestors, and the Holy Ones, responds. His emotional torture and healing are underscored by the instruments of the orchestra, conducted by Michael Christie, the Virginia G. Piper Music Director of The Phoenix Symphony. As Seeker contemplates suicide—“I am lost. What’s the use to go on living when I am here and want to be there? T’áadoo biniiyéhí’dah (what’s the use for my existence)?” His ancestors remind him: “Shiyázhí, wéé, t’óó báhádzid (beloved child, it is a dangerous thing to say)! Please be careful with what you say. You are speaking for all of us. Nihiyázhí nílí (you are our beloved child). You were not born without a reason. You are a miracle brought to live, given breath.”
They plead with him to return to the natural order in the world. “You have walked away from the corn pollen path…Return to the Beauty Way.” They also give him words of comfort. “In the world, there is evil and beauty, sickness and health, disorder and harmony, light and darkness. Balance must always be restored. Shiyázhí, take courage. Listen to our guidance, spoken with much love for you. You were raised with the natural laws of the Holy People. You were raised with Sa’ą́h naaghái bik’eh hózhóón (the Navajo philosophy of life). Remember the stories. Remember the songs. Remember the prayers. Remember who you are. What we have taught you. What the Holy People have taught you. They are in your hands now. You are armed to walk forward into the world with courage, with strength, with bravery.”
And Seeker remembers. “To choose the abyss or to slay the enemy pressed inside me. I hear my relatives’ voices in my dreams. I know it’s time to make the choice. I walk with knowledge of my path. I sing with the power of my song. I pray with thunder words. I hold the power of my shield. I know who I am. I am Enemy Slayer! I take myself back. I make the world safe…Early twilight dawn brings the cleansing light. I emerge from the belly of my mother’s beauty. Shimásání, shicheii, nánísdza (Grandmother, Grandfather, I return). I return from the enemy by means of sacred prayer. I am cleansed of war.”
The closing is a prayer repeated four times by the entire cast singing as one: “Hózhǫ́ náhásdlįį’ dooleeł (let peace prevail).” Seeker’s journey toward healing takes him through the four cardinal points of life to arrive at the beginning again, the place of restoration, and renewal.
Some works of music, like great paintings, live on to become part of humanity’s heritage. The most famous oratorio, Handel’s Messiah comes to mind. The Phoenix Symphony, through a generous but anonymous donor, has taken steps to ensure that Enemy Slayer: A Navajo Oratorio will not be forgotten. The concert was recorded, which is this CD on the Naxos label.
May peace prevail on Mother Earth!
Marley Shebala is Diné and Ashiwi (Zuni Pueblo), and is To’aheedlíinii (The Water Flow Together clan), which is her mother’s clan, and born for Cha’ał (Frog clan), which is her father’s clan. She is Senior News Reporter and a photojournalist for the Navajo Times. Shebala, who has 23 years of journalism experience, was named the 2005 Arizona Community Journalist of the Year by the Arizona Press Club.
The Navajo libretto and an English
translation can be accessed at
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