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Musical journey leads to Willmar

From left are the members of AIRO: Moses Brings Plenty, Nicole, Paul and Shane LaRoche. The group performs at 7:30 p.m. today at WEAC in Willmar. (Submitted photo)

He was 38 years old when he discovered who he really was, but, because of it, so many others have also had the opportunity to experience what had been kept from him for so long.

Paul LaRoche's story of growing up completely unaware of his Native American heritage -- and then discovering and embracing it -- is being told in music on stages all across the country, wherever the award-winning band he founded performs.

He is known today as Brulé. He and his band, American Indian Rock Opera or AIRO (pronounced arrow) have become one of the best-known Native American recording and performing groups in the country. Sales of their CD's have topped the 1 million mark.

Willmar's opportunity to discover the blend of music from two cultures -- described as "a hauntingly beautiful mix of flute, piano, traditional drum, and various guitars" -- comes today at a 7:30 p.m. performance at the Willmar Arts and Education Center.

It's also an opportunity to participate in LaRoche's quest for reconciliation between the two cultures.

"There's always been a strong story line to each and every show we've done,'' said LaRoche of his efforts to bridge the gap between the cultures.

He lives today on the Lower Brule Reservation along the Missouri River, southeast of Fort Pierre, S.D.

He grew up in Worthington as an adopted child. LaRoche said, in a telephone interview, that his parents never so much as gave him a hint about his Native American heritage. He said he suspects they kept his heritage from him as a "protective device,'' believing his identification as a Native American person would handicap him in the society he lived.

After his parents' deaths in 1993, his wife, Kathy, found his adoption papers. It was like a revelation for him, he said, and begot what he called an "instant paradigm shift.''

He learned that his biological parents were deceased, but LaRoche and his family traveled to the Lower Brule Reservation and met his siblings and other Lakota relatives. And soon, the LaRoche family left Minnesota behind to make the reservation their home as well.

Brulé and AIRO have been performing for 11 years, and have been attracting attention and awards for their music and message. They have been recognized by the Native American Music Academy with some of its most prestigious awards, including its "Group of the Year'' award for its CD "Tatanka" in 2006.

Brulé and AIRO have been featured on a 2007 Public Broadcasting System special. It focused on their "Concert for Reconciliation for the Cultures'' which they performed to large crowds at Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills in July of 2007.

Behind the importance of their work is a somewhat whimsical story of LaRoche's own musical inspiration. His adopted father gave him an accordion when he was 6 or 7 years old, in hopes that he'd take a liking to polka music.

Like so many others coming of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he preferred rock 'n roll. He put the accordion aside for the piano and, today, is the keyboard player for the band he founded. His daughter Nicole (flute) and son Shane (guitar) play alongside him today.

The music of Brulé and AIRO draws extensively from the Native American heritage. That means LaRoche "walks a fine line'' on the reservation. There is a long history of those who have exploited the Native American heritage, he pointed out.

LaRoche said it is very much a matter of treating his heritage with respect, while also appreciating and sharing the beauty of the music and dance.

The band keeps a demanding schedule. In the last eight years, it has averaged more than 100 concerts per year.

Most of its audiences have been in large cities, but LaRoche said the 2009 spring tour is deliberately different. It's a homecoming tour that includes Worthington and other, similar-sized communities in the region, ranging from Watertown, S.D., to Willmar and Rochester.

The misunderstanding of Native American people seems to grow with distance from the reservation, said LaRoche, who explained that was very much a motive in selecting the communities for the 2009 tour. It's an opportunity to bring the story of his journey and the traditions of the Native American culture to this area.

LaRoche said he and the band are working with PBS on another show. They are also working with a cable television network, RFD TV, to produce 20 episodes dealing with the Native American experience and heritage.

Tickets for tonight's performance in Willmar are available at Cub Foods and Dunn Brothers Coffee.