Deep, pounding drums underscore the chanting of tribal names as the music of an electric guitar weaves in and out.
“Shawnee, Arapahoe, Omaha,” sings Hawk Pope, chief of the United Remnant Band of the Shawnee Nation, before breaking into a haunting, prayerlike keening.
Cellist Michael Kott, shirtless and intent, sways back and forth as his thin, muscular arms work his instrument.
So went a rehearsal of “Hidden Heritage,” one of the opening songs of a multimedia show composed by Peter Buffett, a son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett.
It’s the story of a distressed businessman struggling to find meaning in his life and discovering it in his American Indian ancestry.
The 90-minute show will be performed in an air-conditioned, 740-seat tent beginning July 13 in Omaha. It will run for nearly four weeks before traveling to Milwaukee in August and to the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in September.
A movie projected onto two 40-foot-high video screens helps tell the story — accompanied by a dozen dancers — as the main character finds himself strengthened and enriched by his culture and concerned about the welfare of all around him.
The 46-year-old, long-haired son of the world’s second richest man plays keyboards, flanked by the drummers, guitarist, Kott and a bass player.
Raising awareness of Indian cultureBuffett said he wants the show to help people become more aware of American Indian culture, which honors family life, nature and a spiritual discipline based on responsibility.
“It’s the idea of taking an action and thinking about seven generations into the future,” Buffett said. “If you really did that, you wouldn’t see the things going on in corporate America, you wouldn’t see things happening in the family.”
“I just felt like the country today was like a 40-year-old that wishes it had listened to its grandfather when it was 10,” Buffett said.
Buffett acknowledged his own father’s role in today’s corporate landscape, with businesses from insurance and restaurants to furniture and jewelry stores. Through Berkshire Hathaway Inc., Warren Buffett is worth an estimated $42.9 billion.
The elder Buffett is widely known for closing deals with a handshake, honesty and ethics in his business dealings.
“My dad is about as good as you can get in what he does,” Buffett said. “He has a better world view than most people, so I think better him than somebody else owning that stuff.”
The younger Buffett said he has been drawn to music for as long as he can remember.
“I played piano pretty much as soon as I could walk over to it and start hitting it,” Buffett said.
“I remember learning ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ at piano lessons when I was 5 or 6, and then coming home and being in a bad mood and playing ‘Yankee Doodle’ in a minor key,” he said. “Looking back, I go ‘wow,’ I was really trying to turn this thing around to express how I was feeling.”
Turning passion into a career
Buffett has turned his love of music into a career. His credits include composing the fire dance scene in Kevin Costner’s Oscar-winning 1991 movie “Dances with Wolves.” Buffett scored the music for 1994’s “500 Nations,” an eight-hour CBS miniseries produced by Costner, and composed two songs for Demi Moore’s 1995 movie “The Scarlet Letter.”
Buffett’s latest venture is the $3 million production of “Spirit,” which he composed with Pope. “Spirit” is a cultural arts program for the Rudolf Steiner Foundation and proceeds from it will be used to promote American Indian culture across the country.
Buffett hopes the show increases awareness of American Indian music.
“I think about what Peter Gabriel does with indigenous music in the Middle East or other places,” Buffett said. “World music can be applied to this world, too.”
The band practiced on a stage in Omaha’s ornate Scottish Rite Masonic Center before moving to the tent. Relaxed on one rainy day in blue jeans and a long-sleeved white shirt, sockless in soft-leather shoes, Buffett led the group through the show, pausing only to announce the next song or allow someone who made a mistake to regain composure.
Bassist Doug Lunn, who has played with Bruce Springsteen, Sting and David Torn, is performing with Buffett for “Spirit” and agrees with the goal.
“Think about how jazz emerged, with European and African music together,” Lunn said during the recent rehearsal. “What if native Americans and Europeans had gotten together and got it right?”
Buffett grew up in Omaha and began his musical career in the early 1980s doing commercial work in San Francisco for MTV, CNN, Coca-Cola and other businesses. He later signed with New Age recording studio Narada Records in Milwaukee and released four albums from 1987 to 1991.
Missing the Midwest, Buffett moved to Milwaukee in 1989 and lives in a four-bedroom, Victorian-style house two blocks from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus.
Moving away from commercial projectsSince 1999, Buffett has concentrated more heavily on his artistic efforts and moved away from commercial projects. And yes, he has to worry about paying his bills. The elder Buffett helps his three children but refuses to carry the weight for them.
“Some royalties come in at $3,000, $1,000, $10,000 a check,” Buffett said. “You can’t chart what will come when. Bread on the table starts to get a little scary now.”
Buffett said he used a loan on his home to keep “Spirit” alive as he raised money for the production from people and businesses. His father pledged $300,000 to the effort, or 10 percent of the costs.
In the 1970s, Buffett’s father gave him stock in Berkshire Hathaway that today would be worth about $50 million. Buffett said he has spent all but about $500,000 worth of that stock on his career and other expenses.
Buffett said his father’s name was a blessing as it opened some fund-raising doors, and a curse because people often assumed he had all the money he needed. Buffett said he and his wife worried about overextending themselves with the house loan.
“Jennifer was not too thrilled to see me go over the edge,” Buffett said.
Buffett said his father has not changed much over the years. Warren Buffett lives in the same house in midtown Omaha where he and his wife, Susan, raised their family. The elder Buffett spends his spare time reading and visiting family and friends.
“I look back and say what a gift, to know where my dad was, to never feel I was interrupting if I had something to say or ask. To know that he wasn’t going to be drunk one night or mad about something I couldn’t understand,” Buffett said. “He was a phenomenally consistent force.”
The “Spirit” project grew out of Buffett’s work on “500 Nations.”
“That’s when I met Hawk Pope and that is when I started to go for what you would consider traditional American Indian sounds — Hawk’s voice, flute and drums,” Buffett said.
Buffett said he did not search out American Indian music, though its ancient use of drums and flute resonates with him.
“There is something in our DNA,” Buffett said. “It affects people. Certainly Hawk’s voice does.”
Buffett said he does not participate in Indian religious or cultural ceremonies.
“It’s really important for me not to step too far into a world that I’ve not been invited to,” he said.