Resistance and rebellion are the essence of punk rock. Brother and sister musicians Clayson and Jeneda Benally embraced those ideals growing up on the Navajo Nation. As teenagers they toured with their band Blackfire, performing with legendary rockers like Joey Ramone and Chris Cornell. The Benallys’ current project, Sihasin is a politically-charged bass-and-drums duo with deep roots in punk rock, activism and the bonds of family. KNAU’s Ryan Heinsius brings us the latest installment of our occasional segment, Eats and Beats: stories about food and music.
Clayson: We definitely did not have a usual childhood, growing up with our father who is a Diné Hathalie medicine man and going to not just ceremonies, but to pow-wows, doing traditional performances, and becoming an educator; sharing in schools, traveling even to Wild West shows all over the world, sharing Navajo culture. Having that base—and then my mom who’s a folk songwriter-singer. For me, family the most important thing.
Jeneda: It’s amazing to be able to make music with my little brother. It’s really fantastic. And even on stage we have our father come sing and with us, we’ve had our mother sing with us, and our kids too. We pride ourselves on being a multi-generational group that can really bridge musical styles between traditional Diné song and, you know, rock.
Jeneda: We grew up originally from Black Mesa, Arizona, and we experienced and saw what relocation was doing to our own Diné people with over 11,000 families being forcibly relocated from our homelands. So we grew up with a lot of anger, we grew up with a lot of frustration. These songs were an opportunity to bring voice to different issues.
Clayson: The word Sihasin, to have hope, to have assurance that there is going to be something better—that’s where we started writing our songs and bringing this whole unique sound together, because we definitely went through a lot of challenges and hard times.
Jeneda: We really wanted to focus with Sihasin as being music that is uplifting, that’s empowering. We want to make music that makes people feel good and that they can do something—that they can create positive change in their community and that’s kind of the spirit behind Sihasin.
Clayson: For me, the drums was my voice. I was always very silent; a mumbler, never could really communicate or talk. I just kind of preferred to hike up the top of mountains and be isolated and hang out with the horses. The drums were my way of communicating where I could be as loud as I wanted to be. I actually play standing up now using traditional Navajo drums as well as pow-wow drums incorporated. I’ve kind of changed some of the rhythm concepts of it—they’re more kind of aligned with traditional cultural rhythms.
Jeneda: People were always like, “Why don’t you ever write love songs?” And then it occurred to me that, wow, wait a minute, these are all love songs, are you crazy? They’re about love of justice, love of freedom, love of equality, love of respect!
Sihasin performs Fri, Sept. 8 at the Coconino Center for the Arts as part of the uranium mining exhibit "Hope and Trauma in a Poisoned Land."