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LYNN NEARY, host:

For this week's installment of our series 50 Great Voices: A Navajo singer who performs traditional songs in the language of her ancestors, with a twist. Her name is Radmilla Cody.

NPR's Felix Contreras has the story of a singer who bridges cultures with her voice.

FELIX CONTRERAS: Radmilla Cody says her singing career started here in this sheep corral behind her grandmother's home on the Navajo reservation, near Flagstaff, Arizona.

Ms. RADMILLA CODY (Singer): So that was my first stage.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONTRERAS: Her first audience was the sheep. Her inspiration came from what she saw and heard around her.

Ms. R. CODY: When you're way out in the middle of nowhere, and you're herding sheep, and you're spending time jumping over the salt bushes and sitting around and listening to all the beautiful sounds of nature, something's going to make you open your mouth.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. R. CODY: (Singing in the Navajo language)

CONTRERAS: The voice is bicultural. Her mother is Navajo, her father African-American. But her mom was just a teenager when Radmilla was born, so the baby was raised by her Navajo grandmother.

There was no electricity or running water here, and young Radmilla Cody lived a very traditional life - learning to herd sheep, spin wool for clothing and cook meals using only what they grew or raised. That traditional Navajo foundation was augmented by one additional cultural factor: Cody's grandmother was Christian.

Ms. R. CODY: And I always remember one particular time, the church had this choir from I don't recall where. But man, they sounded so good. I remember thinking in my mind, oh, that's what I want to do. That's what I want to sound like.

Ms. R. CODY: (Singing in the Navajo language)

CONTRERAS: Cody's two cultures come together on her albums. There are traditional songs as well as songs written by her uncle, Herman Cody. Speaking from his home near the center of the 26,000-square-mile Navajo reservation, Herman Cody says the songs he writes for his niece are secular interpretations of sacred ceremonial songs. And from the beginning he had one goal.

Mr. HERMAN CODY (Songwriter): We're going to make these albums just as Grandpa would walk behind the hogan, sit down, start making a moccasin, and then, he just goes at it. You know...

Mr. CODY: (Singing in the Navajo language)

CONTRERAS: That singing usually comes from a man, and it's usually a monotone, with almost no flourishes. Radmilla projects more and uses techniques like bending notes: common among blues, jazz and pop singers.

Herman Cody says her voice brings the two cultures together.

Mr. CODY: She tends to blend both of them in there to where she can sing a traditional song and give it a soulful approach. That's what makes it sound so unique.

CONTRERAS: It adds what Herman calls Navajo soul to Navajo spirituality.

Ms. R. CODY: I think the soul comes in from the black side.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. R. CODY: And there's the Navajo, just the beauty and the language in itself.

Ms. R. CODY: (Singing in the Navajo language)

CONTRERAS: Radmilla Cody's connection to singing deepened during the 18 months she spent in prison for not reporting a boyfriend's drug dealing.

Ms. R. CODY: The music did not desert me. It remained there in my life. And I think that in a lot of ways it was because the spirit in those songs knew that I needed I needed them.

Ms. R. CODY: (Singing in the Navajo language)

CONTRERAS: Cody says she was afraid to report her boyfriend because he hit her. And now she lends her voice to help other victims of domestic abuse and to help keep the Navajo language alive.

Ms. DOROTHY CODY: (Navajo language spoken)

CONTRERAS: She has her grandmother to thank for that connection to the language. Dorothy Cody is 95 years old now and she still lives in the same house where she raised Radmilla. She says she is proud that her granddaughter is taking the Navajo language well beyond the reservation.

Ms. D. CODY: (Navajo language spoken)

CONTRERAS: Radmilla translates.

Ms. R. CODY: And she said it's good. She said it's good, you know, you being able to sing in the Navajo language, you know, it's a good thing. And then, of course, you being able to sing in English and speak English is good, too. So it's good.

CONTRERAS: For Radmilla Cody it comes down to two languages, two cultures and one voice.

Felix Contreras, NPR News.

NEARY: You can hear Radmilla Cody sing patriotic songs from American history in Navajo and she also raps in Navajo. You can find it all at NPRMusic.org.

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