I caught a rocking little documentary film last week, the latest exhibit springing from Tomorrow’s Stories, our local art centers’ Fall show of contemporary Native American artwork introduced in the previous post. Rumble – The Indians Who Rocked The World – exposes a virtually unknown element of American musical history, that of the influence of indigenous artists on jazz, the blues, and the worldwide rise of rock and roll. Iggy Pop, Martin Scorsese, Steven Tyler, Robbie Robertson, Slash and a host of others circle up to shine a light on the origins of our country's sonic backstory, citing the African polyrhythms mixed with Native chants that created the very fabric of the sound that later became American Popular Music.
From the opening roar of Shawnee guitarist Link Ray’s Rumble, the movie flows like a river across many a rez, carrying viewers along by the surprise of its own unfolding and winning a Sundance Special Jury Award for Masterful Storytelling. Morning songs, songs of the old way, songs of freedom and of the people were outlawed with the coming of the Wasichus (Whites) as the film traces the banning of native music all the way back to the Wounded Knee massacre of 1890. Laying low revolts like the Ghost Dance lead by Pauite Medicine Man Wovolka - movements that threatened the new white reality and were thus censored and oppressed - set the stage for the rebel spirit of rock and roll. “It may not have sounded like it, but that was the beginning of the blues,” said Cyril Neville of New Orleans’ Neville Brothers.
Indigenous singers identified the drum as an instrument of insurrection, stating that “With a drum you can send coded messages, gather people, spark a revolution.” Several Uncis (Grandmas) played the role of positive, artistic influences, from Jimmy Hendrix’s paternal Nanna, Zenora "Nora" Rose Moore of Cherokee descent on up to the Shoshone background of The Black Eyed Peas’ rapper Taboo. I was also happily turned onto to figures like Charley Patton, pioneer of the delta blues of Choctaw ancestry as well as the writings of John Trudell, who I only knew previously as a political activist and one of the leaders of the American Indian Movement (A.I.M). Also an Author, poet, actor, and musician, on his deathbed Trudell uttered his final verses, saying, “My ride showed up. Celebrate love. Celebrate life.”
Researching for this write-up revealed the central reason for the film’s engaging creative take, brought to light in after commentary by Native musician and executive producer Stevie Salas. Salas makes the important point that the filmmakers were adamant to tackle the hard part of making a movie about heroes who did amazing things, not a victim film expressing, ‘I’m an Indian and you really screwed us over again’. “We didn’t want to do that,” he said. “We wanted to celebrate these artists and what they achieved, many against all odds. If you want to lean on the negative it’s there, you can, but why put the emphasis there? The film shows you some of the beauty, some of the culture, lets you feel some of the pain of the past but not lean on the pain like a crutch. It’s a tough dance to do. The story was respectful, educational and entertaining.” Aho Good one.