Pick up any book about 21st century American music and the pages will be dominated by information on the genre’s White and African-American pioneers, from Buddy Holly to James Brown to Miles Davis. It is unlikely, however, that you will read about the influence of artists with a Native American heritage, of which there are a considerable number. Indeed, the importance of the First Nations’ contribution to contemporary music has long been overlooked, but a new film entitled “Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World” is recognising their legacy for the first time.
The film’s title comes from the classic instrumental by Link Wray, a Native American who was a key figure in the genealogy of rock ‘n’ roll. Released in 1958, “Rumble” was a groundbreaking guitar tune that predated contemporary garage and surf rock by 50 years, and was a major influence on the world’s greatest rock guitarists such as Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page. Despite this, Wray’s heritage was unknown or hidden from the general public.
Much of contemporary American music is attributed to African-Americans, but this film reveals that people of the First Nations played a far more influential role than is generally known. Part of this is due to the fact that the Indians were arguably even more marginalised and persecuted than the blacks.
The film investigates the cross-pollination of Afro-American and First Nations’ people, both physically and culturally. Jimi Hendrix is undoubtedly one of the most famous sons. It also looks at other influential artists such as blues singer Charley Patton, jazz singer Mildred Bailey, the aforementioned rock guitarist Link Wray, protest folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie (who became a victim of a CIA/FBI witch hunt), The Band’s Robbie Robertson, as well as tragic guitarist Jesse Ed Davies.
I was lucky enough to see the film at the annual Présence Autochtone (Montreal First Peoples Festival), which for 27 years has been championing the lives and culture of the indigenous people of Canada and further afield. Based in Quebec Province City, what was originally a somewhat niche film festival has grown into a much larger event encompassing all of the arts. Films are still at its core, with offerings from across the globe showing in cinemas and other venues around the city. Documentaries make up a large part of the feature film programme, as there are still many issues to be investigated and tackled, but the fictional films also address them, and often in a more palatable way. Some films cross into both genres, such as “Kuun metsän Kaisa”, which mixes fairytales, animation, archive footage and the social history of the Skolt Sami people of Lapland. This film went on to win the festival’s best film and best documentary awards.
What was particularly encouraging to see was not only the number of short films showing, but also how the quality has grown with the quantity. This can primarily be attributed to the ongoing work that Wapikoni Mobile is doing, taking filmmaking and other media skills to the First Nations communities. They work almost exclusively with the youth, many of whom are disillusioned and unsure of their identities. Through filmmaking, they are able to explore the conundrum between tradition and the digital, social-media driven world. The project is uncovering a lot of talented young storytellers who would otherwise have trouble expressing themselves.
The amalgamation of heritage and modernity was perfectly displayed in the art exhibition “From Smoke to Cyber Signals” at Espace Culturel Ashukan. Artist Carmen Hathaway combines digital and 3D art with ideas from traditional stories and myths, which are then printed onto canvas. Another area where cultural fusion works particularly well is music. It is a universal language that spans the limitations of geography, heritage and time. Our voices, and drums, are our most primordial means of communication, and listening to the Buffalo Hat Singers you can feel that right to the core of your being.
Music has become an integral feature of the festival, and through the free concerts in Place des Festivals, it is now the most popular part. The fact that Présence Autochtone coincides with Osheaga, now Canada’s biggest music festival, happening a short Metro ride away, hasn’t dampened enthusiasm. If Osheaga is Glastonbury, then this is WOMAD. The “world music” aspect was further highlighted this year through the festival’s collaboration with Vive 375, a year-long celebration of Montreal’s 375th anniversary.
Like Wapikoni, Musique Nomade is an initiative for indigenous musicians to record, promote and distribute their work. The music available is as diverse as the nation it comes from, and with a multitude of influences. This was perfectly displayed at Nikamotan MTL, a showcase of Musique Nomade artists that featured individual performances and duets, embracing styles from blues to hip-hop to country to reggae.
Thursday evening saw Silla + Rise performing a fascinating and unique mix of Inuit throat singing combined with electronic beats. This musical cross-pollination continued on Saturday evening with Nova Stella, which incorporated a panoply of musicians and spoken-word artists from across the city’s émigré communities. As with Nikamotan MTL, there were duets from unlikely pairings of diverse performers. Rap and hip-hop were fairly predominant, but the highlights were Congolese singer Pierre Kwenders, who mixed rumba with electronic beats and a riveting stage presence; Shauit, a regular at the festival who performed original reggae songs in his native Innu tongue; and Nomadic Massive, an international collective of musicians whose upbeat mix of primarily hip-hop and soul proved to be a crowd-pleasing finale to the evening.
This fusion of traditional and contemporary cultures was also extended to the food that was on offer in Place des Festivals, the public face of the festival with its giant teepee dominating the square in the downtown entertainment quarter. Usually when one talks about fusion food, one thinks of traditional food that has been spoilt by Westerners that think they can improve on dishes that have been perfected over centuries and millennia. However, in this case, indigenous chef George Lesner has taken a different approach:
“I want to define what indigenous food is,” he said. “I do not think it solely consists of ingredients and recipes from pre-colonial contact. That was such a long time ago, and what has happened to our land, people, culture and relations have changed our diets and needs dramatically over the years. What we cooked 600 years ago to survive was completely different to what we cooked when our meat was taken away by colonisers, and rotten flour was given to us instead.
“With my food, I want to represent our peoples’ struggles, and innovations we were forced to go through. I want to showcase that we are contemporary peoples, as well as make a statement that we may have had our land taken away, colonisers may have taken many of our lives, but our resilient spirit is still here, and our resistance is not going anywhere.”
Should you ever find yourself in Montreal in the summer months, possibly to take in the plethora of high-profile festivals, take time out to explore the offerings of Présence Autochtone, with its free music concerts and thought-provoking films.
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Cover photo: Shauit
All photos by Chris Patmore