When it comes to passing on the past, Indigenous cultures do it through storytelling. So it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that the latest documentary by Montreal-based Rezolution Pictures would pick up a prize for doing just that.
After its world premiere at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival in January, Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World walked way with the Special Jury Award for Masterful Storytelling in the World Cinema Documentary category.
And what a story it is! Written by co-directors Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorana, Rumble explores the unheralded contributions of Indigenous Americans in shaping popular songs by focussing on the contributions of well-known musicians whose ancestral heritage helped influence the direction of popular music.
“We were so honoured,” exclaimed Bainbridge, “not only be selected to screen the film at Sundance, but to walk away with an award. You have to realize that only 12 films out of nearly 2000 are selected in the world documentary category. So just be able to attend was incredible enough.
“And the award for storytelling is an acknowledgement of the whole team involved in this project. Everyone – be they cinematographers, editors, writers, researchers, sound people, interviewees, even the artists themselves – are all storytellers. So the award is a recognition of everybody’s contribution.”
Covering over a century of music, Rumble introduces artists whose Native past filtered through their rhythms, their drumming or their vocal phrasing into different genres of music – be it the blues, jazz, folk, rock or heavy metal.
The list is impressive and includes 1920s Delta bluesman Charley Patton, Mildred Bailey a.k.a. the “Queen of Swing”, folk legend Buffy Sainte-Marie, guitar hero Jimi Hendrix, Band guitarist Robbie Robertson, and metal drummer Randy Castillo.
Stevie Salas, Taboo, Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorano
For Muscogee writer, musician and activist Joy Harjo, the reason that Native Americans have gone unrecognized for so long was a conscious decision. “Indigenous people being left out of the story of music, of course has everything to do with the land,” Harjo said. “It has to do with the way of imagining the American Dream, which was a land cleared of Indigenous people.”
As the film infers, the last wave of free American Indian singers were the Ghost Dancers in the late 19th century, before the US government brutally suppressed this cultural voice in a wave of violence that culminated with the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890.
Rumble takes its title from guitarist Link Wray’s infamous 1958 instrumental that was banned from certain radio markets for its menacing opening power chord and use of distortion and feedback. With youth culture burgeoning, the authorities feared it would incite teen violence. Despite its notoriety, Wray’s song became the definitive sound that influenced all future rock guitarists.
Though every rock aficionado knew about Wray, few realized he was a Shawnee from North Carolina – a fact that even Wray kept hidden. This became the modus operandi for most musicians with Aboriginal ancestry.
Link Wray pictured in the 70’s
Guitarist and songwriter Robbie Robertson, best known for his role in The Band, spent much time as child with his mother’s family on the Six Nations Reserve, near Brantford, Ontario. From an early age, he remembers the phrase: “Be proud you are an Indian, but be careful who you tell.”
In Rumble, Bainbridge and Maiorana have assembled an impressive list of interviewees. Besides musicians, including Tony Bennett, Taj Mahal, Iggy Pop, Slash, Stevie Van Zandt and Jackson Browne, they also spoke to filmmaker Martin Scorsese and actor Adam Beach, as well as numerous writers, historians and activists, such as John Trudell and John Troutman.
With interviews, archival footage, photographs and even some animation, the story is seamlessly pieced together to illuminate this overlooked component in the story of popular music. As Trudell emphatically states, “They tried to erase it.” But as Rumble reveals, they were not successful.
While growing up in Chisasibi, executive producer Ernest Webb said he wasn’t aware of much of this “hidden” story. Working on this project, he said, one of the biggest revelations was discovering that blues music also has Native American roots.
“Everybody assumes the blues came from Africa – but in fact it came from Africa and America. Many Native women worked on plantations as slaves, while Native men were deported to islands in the Caribbean to be less of a threat. So on the plantations there was a mixing that took place between Native women and African men. It was the marriage of these cultures that created the blues.”
For Webb, the biggest eye-opener was listening to a recording by bluesman Charley Patton – whose grandmother was Cherokee – and then to some Native chanting. “I was amazed – they sounded identical.” Than he added, “That’s the thing about this film, you will hear and listen to the music with new ears.”