In the documentary “Rumble: Indians Who Rocked the World,” artist and musician Pura Fe is seated next to an old turntable as spinning vinyl crackles with the primal moan of Mississippi blues icon Charley Patton. As she listens, there is a broad smile of recognition, a laugh and then a struggle to hold back a tear.
The scene comes in a section of the film that includes video of Mick Jagger and Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones introducing a 1965 British TV audience of screaming teenagers to “one of our greatest idols,” blues legend Howlin’ Wolf, and an archival recording of Howlin’ Wolf describing how he learned the guitar from his own idol, Patton.
The debt owed to African-American blues pioneers by contemporary British and American rock bands, soul and jazz singers, and country artists has been well documented. But less examined is the branch higher on the family tree of American popular music, the sounds that influenced those blues influencers.
As his 1929 recording of “Down the Dirt Road Blues” rattles from the record player next to Pura Fe, Patton’s chanting vocal and rhythmic slapping of the guitar echoes with uncanny precision the style heard moments earlier in the film with a rare recording of traditional music by the Mississippi Choctaw Indians. Patton and Howlin’ Wolf shared bloodlines with the Choctaw, and their music, which foreshadowed the birth of rock ’n’ roll, reverberates with ancient cultures and riturals.
“It’s Indian music to me,” says Pura Fe, whose family is a blend of Taino natives and Tuscarora Indians, clapping out the rhythm with her hands. “Do you hear it? That’s Indian music with a guitar. That’s where it went. That’s where the traditional music went.”
Screening at 5 p.m. Friday, Nov. 3, as one of the opening-night features for the 32nd annual Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, “Rumble” offers an illuminating, entertaining and energetically paced tutorial on the essential role of American Indian songs and traditions in the development of popular music and culture.
“This story isn’t just about music. It’s about American history,” veteran rock guitarist and producer Stevie Salas says.
An Apache from Southern California who has recorded and toured with George Clinton, Justin Timberlake, Buddy Miles, T.I., Mick Jagger and Rod Stewart, Salas came up with the idea for “Rumble” more than a decade ago and is an executive producer on the film.
A hit at Sundance earlier this year, “Rumble” was made by Canadian writer-director Catherine Bainbridge’s Montreal-based Rezolution Pictures. Bainbridge’s credits include “Reel Injun,” a 2009 documentary critical of Native American stereotypes in Hollywood, and “Rumble” is not shy about acknowledging U.S. government campaigns to eradicate the cultures of indigenous people, including the Wounded Knee massacre of 1890.
“I tried [to get the film made in the United States], but I couldn’t get the funding,” Salas says.
Salas will attend the Nov. 3 screening with executive producer Christina Fon, joined by veteran Canadian actor Graham Greene, a member of the Oneida tribe and an Oscar nominee for “Dances With Wolves,” who will receive a FLIFF Lifetime Achievement Award.
Using rarely heard recordings, video and historic photographs, Salas, who has served as the adviser of contemporary music at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, and Bainbridge reveal and connect dots both musical and cultural. One memorable picture shows three restroom doors with individual signs for “White,” “Colored” and “Indian.”
As Native Americans, slaves, freed blacks and Mexican immigrants mixed across the South and Southwest — each might pass for another ethnicity based on the prevailing prejudice in a particular place and time — cultural traditions and sounds interacted to create new forms.
Stars look back
“Rumble” shows it is an ongoing process, which its interview subjects — among them Martin Scorsese, Tony Bennett, Slash, Steven Tyler, Iggy Pop, Quincy Jones, George Clinton and Steven Van Zandt — seem anxious to help set straight as the film skips briskly across genres and eras.
Cyril Neville, part Choctaw, talks about the Indian influence on the sound and look of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, where “Indians passed as black … so they wouldn’t get sent to the reservation.”
The unique vocal style of Mildred Bailey, the first female big-band singer, is traced back to the music of her childhood as a Coeur d'Alene Indian in Idaho and forward to her influence on Tony Bennett.
“She was a cornerstone in the direction of jazz,” Bennett says, describing that as a teenage singing waiter in Queens, “the only thing I listened to was Mildred Bailey. She sang perfect for me.”
Jimi Hendrix’s fringe-and-turquoise fashion at Woodstock is cited as a tribute to his paternal grandmother, one-quarter Cherokee, and his wild style to Charley Patton.
Taj Mahal and Jackson Browne discuss the greatness of guitarist Jesse Ed Davis (a Kiowa Indian), who replaced a sick Eric Clapton at the Concert for Bangladesh; Robbie Robertson (Mohawk) recalls going electric with Bob Dylan and the Band; the late John Trudell (Santee Dakota and Mexican) remembers his Jesse Ed Davis collaboration “Grafitti Man” and the Johnny Cash concept album “Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian.”
Salas and Guns N’ Roses’ Matt Sorum pay respect to Ozzy Osbourne drummer Randy Castillo (Isleta Pueblo/Apache); Taboo of Black Eyed Peas recalls being raised in Los Angeles as Mexican instead of Shoshone, and speaks with Pat Vegas of Redbone, who played their durable hit “Come and Get Your Love” on TV’s “Midnight Special” in full Native ceremonial attire.
“Rumble” takes its name from the 1958 instrumental by guitarist Link Wray, whose blues-rock riff was deemed so provocative that it was banned in some cities where they feared the sound — just the sound, no words — would incite gang violence.
As the film reveals, Wray was a Shawnee Indian in Black River, N.C., who grew up hiding under his bed when the KKK came around. He sang gospel music with his two brothers as his mother preached, and he learned blues guitar from a black circus performer.
The menacing guitar on “Rumble” was “the sound of freedom,” the MC5’s Wayne Kramer says.
The Band’s Robbie Robertson says, “It changed everything. It made an indelible mark on the whole evolution of where rock ‘n’ roll was going to go.”
“Rumble: Indians Who Rocked the World” will be shown 5 p.m. Friday, Nov. 3, at Hard Rock Live, 1 Seminole Way, in Hollywood. Tickets purchased in advance cost $12, $10 seniors, $9 military and students. All tickets will cost $15 at the door. Call 954-525-3456 or go to FLIFF.com.