Singer's low profile belies a busy life


POSTED: Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Even though she's helping promote her newest recording in 13 years, Buffy Sainte-Marie still wants to keep her private life to herself.

The singer-songwriter and multimedia enthusiast has lived in Hawaii since 1968, but most people don't know that. With the exception of performing a benefit for Anahola, Kauai, flood victims and putting in guest appearances at concerts by occasional Maui resident Willie Nelson over the years, Sainte-Marie has never headlined a concert in the islands. And she has no plans to do so now, even with the release of her latest album, “;Running for the Drum,”; being released today.

That's because she considers Hawaii her retreat from the outside world—to the point that she asked during her interview Friday that it not be revealed what neighbor island she lives on.

Sainte-Marie achieved national success early in her career as one of a group of New York City folk singers like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, who rose to fame in the 1960s. She stood out with her long, black hair and Canadian Cree Indian heritage, and penned the war protest song “;Universal Soldier,”; made popular by the English folk-rock troubadour Donovan.

Her repertoire included love songs, two of which have been pop classics: 1966's “;Until It's Time for You to Go,”; first recorded by Bobby Darin and later made famous by Elvis Presley in the early '70s, and “;Up Where We Belong,”; the Oscar-winning song from '82's “;An Officer and a Gentleman”; that Sainte-Marie wrote with Jack Nitzsche and Will Jennings, sung as a duet by Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes.

As a performer, however, she was blacklisted by the Johnson and Nixon administrations for her involvement in the Vietnam anti-war movement and her fight for native people's rights, which continues to this day.

While not as visible as she once was, Sainte-Marie has done enough over the years to keep her on the music radar. Now in her late 60s, she says she thought she was “;too famous”; because of her '60s work, which brought both wanted and unwanted attention.

But those who were parents and youngsters from 1976 through '81 knew Sainte-Marie as a resident on “;Sesame Street.”; Appearing with then-husband Sheldon Wolfchild and son Cody, she remembers, “;We did a lot of Indian reservation trips, talked about sibling rivalry, and even showed me breast-feeding Cody. Because I made sure that the depiction of myself and other native Indians was done correctly, I never felt they typecast me.”;

Cody, who practically grew up on “;Sesame Street,”; is now a 32-year-old musician who, according to his mother, plays in different local bands around Hawaii.


THOSE FAMILIAR with Sainte-Marie's folk-based fare will be taken aback by the first three tracks on “;Running for the Drum.”; They wouldn't sound out of place during late-night hours at a dance club, with her powerful songs filled with drum loops and powwow-charged vocal samples.

“;It would seem like 180 degrees for someone who only knew of my music from the past 30 years,”; she said, “;but I was one of the earliest artists to delve into electronic music.

“;In 1969 I did an album, 'Illuminations,' that was the first quadraphonic vocal record done with synthesizers. I was one of the first to use computers in the '70s and the Apple MacIntosh in the '80s. In 1991 I was the first artist to send music files over the Internet—tracks that I recorded here in Hawaii to my friend Chris Burkett in London—for what would be the 'Coincidence & Likely Stories' album. My fan base in Europe and Canada know of my work over the years, but I think most American listeners would be surprised.”;

Sainte-Marie is proud of her eclectic approach to her music, ranging from her socially conscious songs to “;those two big hits where I've made my money from.”;

She often revisits her earlier work, like she did with one of her stronger folk tunes, “;Little Wheel Spin and Spin,”; on the new album. With “;Universal Soldier”; still in her current concert set list, the spirit of the early 1960s is still very much a part of her.

“;It was an incredible time,”; she said. “;Student ruled then and coffee was the drug. The coffeehouses I played in were safe places for students to get together. I hung out with an internationally minded crowd.”;

Sainte-Marie would often visit places where indigenous people lived wherever she toured worldwide.

Her activism has not abated, either. Utilizing her college degree in teaching and computer skills, she created the Cradleboard Teaching Project in 1996.

“;In 2007 my dream came true. The curriculum we've developed for native American and Hawaii social studies is now totally free on the Internet.”;

Building from an initial exchange between a First Nations school in Quebec, Canada, and Kauai's Island School through e-mail and live chat, there is now online curriculum of geography and science from an Aboriginal perspective available for elementary, middle and high schools who use the Cradleboard Teaching Project.

Although Sainte-Marie is the primary donor and fundraiser for her educational project, she's on hiatus right now because she's touring behind her new album, “;so I can't wear my teacher hat right now, although I do miss it.”;

She still is politically engaged, having worked for Barack Obama's presidential campaign.

“;I'm a big fan of his,”; she said, “;not because he's from Hawaii or he's of mixed race, but because he was a professor of constitutional law, and that made him the most qualified candidate. I had the opportunity to help with a donation when I met his sister, Maya. I then volunteered my time working in swing states like New Mexico, which has a large Indian and Chicano population, making sure that voter protection was enforced.”;

TO SAY THAT Sainte-Marie has energy to burn would be an understatement. “;My creativity has always burned bright. I started my singing career when I was so young, and success came quickly as well, But I pretty much live an ideal life between my time in large cities and in the country here in Hawaii. And whether my art is expressed through music or my digitally created paintings or the teaching project, I try to be creative on many levels.

“;I'm like a person with a camera, taking snapshots all the time,”; she said. “;I'm also kind of like a sponge, where I soak up a lot in my private life, so by the time I go into the public, I have a lot to give.”;

Even though she was an early proponent for computer technology, she chooses not to “;play with social networks”; like Twitter and Facebook.

“;There's a saying that I use with the Cradleboard project that, no matter the technology, 'nothing takes the place of the fire.' Human-to-human communication is a lot deeper and self-reliant. While technology is fun and soups everything up, it's never going to ruin my day.”;