Robert Mirabal and ETHEL perform. Nathan Grime | Collegian

Nearly 200 listeners packed Markel Auditorium on Saturday for an evening that highlighted traditional Native American culture through both classical and tribal music.

Robert Mirabal, an acclaimed Native American musician, performed with the trailblazing string quartet ETHEL as part of the Hillsdale College Professional Artist Series. The group presented  its album “The River.”

Mirabal is a three-time Grammy Award winner, a two-time Native American Artist of the Year, and a three-time Native American Songwriter of the Year. ETHEL has premiered more than 150 new works while traveling across the country.  

Mirabal told the audience sincerity is the key to connecting with the music and, as a result, the audience.

“The music is such a tiny part of what is really actually there,” Mirabal said. “Doing it for so many years, I know what particular parts to choose that are relevant to the time, the generation, and to the audience. It’s about creating community, and that’s what’s lacking now.”

Mirabal played a variety of instruments, including an assortment of his homemade traditional flutes. In between pieces, Mirabal explained the meaning behind the texts and tunes that made up the set. The lyrics came from his traditional native culture, and some were stories that make up the generational oral tradition that is so important to his Pueblo tribe in New Mexico. 

Mirabal often incorporated hand signs into his songs to convey the customs of his culture. He moved around while singing and playing and interacted with the audience at times. During the final song, Mirabal walked through the aisles as he sang. 

“He went around and shook everyone’s hands. I thought that was neat,” said JoAnn Arendt, house director at Galloway Residence. “That was kind of the highlight of the whole thing.” 

ETHEL, the quartet, consisted of three violins and a cello. Collaborating and touring with Mirabal broadened the group’s musical boundaries, according to founding member and cellist Dorothy Lawson. 

“That was our first step outside — looking at other ways of building concert music that might sound more contemporary, relevant, exciting, and entertaining,” she said. It came from “an urge to be more whole and humane and embrace more, bring more of our lives together, bring more people together.”

Lawson said the group used a foundation in classical training to branch out musically and culturally. 

“When we began just before the millennium, the classical music world had kind of strangled itself because it had such firm boundaries around everything that was okay in a concert hall and the audience was just fed up with it,” she said.

Lawson said making music is an ideal way to cross cultures, communities, and customs. 

The day of the concert, Mirabal and ETHEL held a masterclass geared toward Hillsdale music students. Professor and Music Department Chairman James Holleman described the session as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience a different culture through music.

“The masterclass was amazing,” Holleman said. “[Mirabal] came out and opened himself and his world up to the students. It was fascinating. I wish every student on campus had been there. It was an insight we just don’t get.”

ETHEL and Mirabal invited some of the students who were at the class to play along with them for their last piece of the set that evening. 

Freshman Gabriel Meyer, who plays the cello, said after the quartet heard some strings students working on improvisational music during the masterclass, they invited the students to join them on stage for the performance. 

“I was kinda freaked out. I almost didn’t do it,” Meyer said. “But then I heard one song at the concert and thought, ‘Shoot, this is too awesome, I have to be a part of this!’ It was amazing to make such beautiful music for such talented people.” 

For other students in the audience, the experience was just as unique and rewarding. 

“Some of the sounds produced by the instruments were strange to hear at first but contributed to the music in beautiful ways,” freshman Ben Jagoda said. “It is interesting to me that cultures all over the world have a similar, basic understanding of music.”