American music took shape and went global thanks to the country’s melting pot of influences. Yet one of the most important sources of the sound often goes forgotten — American Indians.
A new documentary, “Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World,” shines a new light on the history and traces how indigenous people’s rhythms, singing and dancing helped set the course of American music.
“I started, just out of curiosity, to look around for more people like myself. Are there other Native American people doing what I do?” said Stevie Salas, the guitarist of Apache origin who is the executive producer of the film, which is screening in New York before its broadcast in December on Arte, the French-German cultural channel which coproduced it.
“It seemed like I couldn’t find any. But then as I would start to dig I started to realize: there were a lot, it’s just people didn’t know it,” he said.
Indigenous Americans, decimated by invasion, were not considered US citizens until 1924 — more than 50 years after African Americans — and continue to lag behind in social indicators.
In one of the final but most notorious acts of the conquest of the West, US troops shot dead 300 men, women and children at Wounded Knee in South Dakota in 1890 as they crushed the burgeoning “Ghost Dance” musical and spiritual movement.
“They went after our culture. It was genocide and they wanted to erase every cultural perception of reality that we had,” John Trudell, a musician and activist who is Santee Dakota, says in the documentary.
– An Indian father of the blues? –
The blues, one of the defining US genres which helped shape rock, was born in the Deep South among African Americans who had been freed from slavery only to discover more hardship.
Charley Patton, often considered the father of the blues as he honed his guitar style in early 20th-century Mississippi, was believed to be at least partially of Choctaw heritage.
His ancestry is traced in “Encylopedia of Native Music” by Canadian scholar Brian Wright-McLeod, which forms the basis of the documentary.
The film shows that the Native American ancestry is more than a footnote, with Patton’s rhythms and singing owing both to African and indigenous roots.
Other key musicians of Native American origin include Link Wray, whose distorted guitar was a major influence on the development of rock — and whose song “Rumble” provides the film’s title.
“There might not be a Who, there might not be a Jeff Beck Group, there might not be a Led Zeppelin if there were no Link Wray,” Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins says in the film.
“Rumble” is driven by interviews by an impressive array of stars — a deliberate move, Salas said, to give credibility for viewers unfamiliar with Native Americans’ impact.
Wayne Kramer of garage rock pioneers MC5 called Link Wray “the architect of my sound, the MC5 sound, and a thousand of other rock guitar players since then.”
By the 1960s, major artists began to celebrate their Native American heritage openly including Canadian folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie and Jesse Ed Davis, a guitarist who recorded with members of The Beatles and Eric Clapton.
More recent figures include Taboo, the rapper of Black Eyed Peas who has used his platform to campaign for causes including opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline on indigenous lands.
Other artists who were partially of Native American origin included Jimi Hendrix, who grew up hearing stories from his part-Cherokee grandmother, and possibly Elvis Presley.
Country great Johnny Cash was convinced of his indigenous roots, releasing an album of Native American-inspired songs in 1964.
Cash, who died in 2003, is heard saying in the film that DJs would not play songs from the album because it made them “feel guilty.”
But broader recognition of American Indian contributions has taken longer.
Native American fashion came to represent freedom and rebellion for the hippies of the 1960s, but Salas said that few drew the connection to indigenous culture.
“It wasn’t until the ’90s when ‘Dance with Wolves’ came out — I know it sounds crazy — that America accepted this love of native culture,” he said.
Join GhanaStar.com to receive daily email alerts of breaking news in Ghana. GhanaStar.com is your source for all Ghana News. Get the latest Ghana news, breaking news, sports, politics, entertainment and more about Ghana, Africa and beyond.