Although they’ve worked together several times before, Tim Johnson and Stevie Salas look like unlikely collaborators. For their tandem interview on a rainy afternoon earlier this spring at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival about their work on Rumble: The Indians who Rocked the World, Johnson has arrived early – earlier than their interviewer, in fact – dressed nicely in business attire and asking thoughtful questions about various other films that he has seen recently. He’s warm, businesslike, and extremely knowledgeable. Salas energetically bounds in a few moments later than the start time of the interview with the swagger, charisma, and congeniality of a rock star, which makes sense because he’s actually a rock star.
Johnson and Salas are the executive producers of director Catherine Bainbridge and co-director Alfonso Maiorana’s documentary, which drew raves from its world premiere at Sundance and scored the coveted Audience Award from Hot Docs in May, but the producers’ love of First Nations musical culture extends beyond their work here and beyond their own ancestry. Johnson, a Mohawk, and Salas, an Apache, helped to adapt Rumble: The Indians who Rocked the World from an exhibit of the same name that was mounted for The National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian.
It was Canada that brought Johnson and Salas together in the first place. The pair met at the opening of Jukasa Recording Studio on Six Nations land, an endeavour that Salas helped found. They struck up a lengthy conversation about the representation of Native Americans in mainstream popular culture that would make a particular impression on Johnson, who at the time was working for the venerable Smithsonian as the Associate Director of Museum Programs at the institution’s National Museum of the American Indian.
Salas, who grew up in and around San Diego, California, has worked in the music industry since his teens, and has been a sought after guitarist, working with everyone from George Clinton and Rod Stewart to Mick Jagger and Justin Timberlake, and serving as a former consultant for American Idol. In addition to releasing a bunch of his own solo records and constant touring schedule, he also found time to perform and write music for films like Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Next of Kin, and Action Jackson. A lifetime achievement award winner from the Native American Music Awards in 2009, Salas has toiled endlessly in the music industry to this day, and his knowledge was key not only in making Rumble: The Indians who Rocked the World a big screen reality, but also in helping Johnson to create one of the most successful installations in the history of The Smithsonian.
“Overseeing exhibits for the National Museum of the American Indian, we looked at numerous professions to see if we could do exhibitions around them,” Johnson muses over coffee while talking about the genesis of Rumble. “Take, for example, native actors. We know there are a lot of native actors that we could do an exhibit around and people would recognize them, but they never changed the game the way native musicians did. They never shaped what acting was all about. We looked at athletes, and outside of Jim Thorpe who probably did advance many sports, we couldn’t say they actually shaped the outcome or direction of their profession. But when we threw our research, investigation, and inquiry into looking at musicians, it was different. Here are people who introduced new elements to jazz, blues, rock, folk, hip-hop, and it all started to unfold and became quite substantive.”
Salas says that most diehard music fans will instantly recognize the heavy contributions that indigenous peoples of the western world have made on popular music and culture, but the casual fan and public at large might need a grander education on the subject. Rumble: The Indians who Rocked the World looks at many of these musical pioneers and gives them their proper, respectful due. Link Wray, whose title track the film and exhibit share a name with, basically invented the power chord (a staple of modern rock) and produced the first instrumental track to get banned. Musicians like Cyril Neville, Charlie Patton, Mildred Bailey, Randy Castillo, Robbie Robertson, Jimi Hendrix, and Salas himself followed and carried on the rich Native American musical tradition, all coming from a culture that slowly had enormous pieces of their musical history erased in the wake of colonialism.
“Taylor Hawkins from Foo Fighters says it really well at the beginning of the film: ‘Would there be a Jeff Beck without Link Wray? Would there be a Led Zeppelin without Link Wray? Would there be The Who without Link Wray? Would there be The Kinks without Link Wray?’” Salas states passionately about native contributions to rock and roll. “This is when you start to realize that all of these people have been ignored. What guy in history could play with all four Beatles, Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart, The Stones, and you wouldn’t know their name? Who else but Jesse Ed Davis played separately with all four Beatles? If you love music you should know the answers to questions like these. Every musician should know their names, and most of the great ones do.”
About a year after their initial encounter and several years before making the film was a reality, Johnson brought Salas on as an advisor for the Smithsonian exhibit, and Johnson says that before they could ever think about making a film that would bridge the artistic director’s scholarly connections with Salas’ vast music industry contacts, they would have to brainstorm and refine their approach to music history into the best museum exhibit possible.
“When we were first thinking about the exhibit, my position as the Director of Museum Programs meant that I was the chair of the exhibition committee, so we had a slight leg up in that sense,” Johnson explains of the film’s roots in the exhibition. “In terms of having enough substance to present to the committee, we saw that it was entertaining subject matter, but it had to have merit to it in order to pass the high Smithsonian bar. The uncovering of this historical element that was really there all along was the real magic that allowed us to get the exhibit through the production committee and get the resources we needed to make it a reality. But the real gem was uncovering all of these contributions by Native American musicians that people had never heard of. I was learning a lot, and Stevie was learning a lot. It was also special for the National Museum of the American Indian because at the time, most of their exhibition was focused on their collection; you know, ethnological artifacts, objects, written histories, these kinds of things. This exhibition on music and specifically contributions made towards contemporary music made by Native Peoples was an introduction of something that ran against the grain, but it was innovative. I remember learning about the work of Jesse Ed Davis as being a real surprise for me. I had never heard of him, and I thought that if his contributions to music were going overlooked, who else was out there?”
“I knew bits and piece here and there, but when we got into the sheer depth of Native American contributions to music when we were having meetings at The Smithsonian, I just thought, ‘Holy shit!’” Salas says with a sense of disbelief about the learning process tied to the exhibit’s creation. “But they agreed to do the exhibit, and I think they really only agreed to it because [Tim] was the boss. (laughs) It was going to originally be this small exhibit that would run in this tiny room for three months, and it ended up being this massive exhibit that ran for a year in New York alone. It got extended for six months when we did it in D.C., and we would have extended it longer, but the room was booked up!”
“It ended up being far more popular than the stalwarts that were often brought out, and much more popular than originally anticipated,” Johnson says about the exhibit’s massive popularity when it premiered to the public. “We first opened the small exhibit in the Washington facility, and because of its popularity, a year later we had the opening in the larger gallery of our New York City facility. We put it on steroids there, so to speak. We jacked it up to roughly four times the size, and it was a huge hit there.”
From there, the idea of a documentary seemed like a no-brainer to Salas and Johnson, and the funding process even saw Salas making trips to Toronto in order to pitch the idea of Rumble to the Hot Docs pitching forums several years ago. While much of the material and research in the film has been taken straight from the exhibit, Salas credits the power of The Smithsonian and Johnson’s confidence with making the film a reality
“I think because we had the power of the Smithsonian on our side, I think that gave us the confidence to really get into great detail about what we wanted to do with the film,” Salas says about the film’s funding process. “When I was pitching the idea I was just throwing out all of these ideas right off the top of my head because we had spent so much time working on this material already. We knew that this history would shake people up, and gauging by the reactions that we have gotten from the Smithsonian and from audiences that have seen it, we can see that it’s doing just that.”
Part of shaking audiences up comes in the form of engaging with viewers and showing them how popular North American music finds roots in a culture that was once in danger of vanishing. The ability of some indigenous tribes to perform and exhibit their music in public was outlawed in many parts of the United States, especially in the south. If the government could control the music of the people, they could tighten the stranglehold on their culture. Today, more and more indigenous musical artists are embracing their musical roots, but for centuries that history had been hard to find and access.
While there’s definitely a racial component to Rumble: The Indians who Rocked the World, Salas remains adamant that the documentary’s crew didn’t want to make a film that solely focused on the race of its subjects, preferring to have a wide range of modern and classical musical artists speak about how Native American contributions refined and influenced their sound. Salas and Johnson are in agreement that the film and the exhibit that started it all was more about giving voice to the artists and their music and not a polemic designed to spark a larger confrontation.
“Personally, and I don’t know how Tim felt and I don’t think we really discussed it, I didn’t want to make a ‘race film,’ Salas says about his film’s approach to Native American history. “I’m a musician, and I’ve seen black musicologists say that ‘Elvis was a racist and that Little Richard invented rock,’ and I think that there might be some merit to that, but I still like Elvis and I feel like forcing that point of view is kind of a bummer. Whether it’s true or not, bringing things like that up puts a negative slant on everything and takes away from the music itself. We didn’t want to have a lot of Native American people coming on camera saying ‘We got screwed again.’ We’re always getting f**ked over, pardon my language, so let’s just have the most famous musicians in the world tell you what they thought and how they were inspired by these guys. Instead of an educated, scholarly guy who’s never played a concert say this and that, let’s let the music speak for itself. Let a guy from The Beatles tell you. Let someone from The Stones tell you. Let someone that you grew up with or that you trust tell you. Let someone who has lived it tell you. These songs and tracks are part of the fabric of the life of the person who made it and the people who love it or get inspired by it. It was always important that we let these people do it and that they wanted to do it. It was really easy because there was such an admiration for these artists from the people that we talked to. It was genuine, and it wasn’t dry or a lie. In this case, it really helped because we didn’t want to make a film that was only about racism. We wanted to make something truly about the nature of inspiration.”
“When we developed the smaller Washington exhibit, we always wanted recognizable, less scholarly people to come forward and affirm to the general public that these artists were real, they existed, they can’t be erased, and they shaped music as we know it today,” Johnson adds. “In many cases, these were people who played with the artists we’re profiling and not just idols. We never saw race as a defining point for these artists, but from seeing the film, you’ll see that we do touch upon some racist histories. We look at everything from the Ku Klux Klan to Standing Rock, so there’s enough to touch base on with relation to struggle and how it shaped the perceptions and directions of these artists. It’s there, but it’s not in your face. We were always adamant about that because you can find racism anywhere, but these musicians have been ignored or undervalued for far too long.”
“My thought as a Native American artist is that at first settlers tried to erase us completely,” Salas begins adding on a more personal note. “Then the generation of my great-grandparents almost tried to erase themselves because they didn’t want to try to deal with any of this mess anymore and they tried to assimilate. Then, as we get older, people are starting to come out again, and in some ways it feels like we’re properly starting over. In certain ways we erased ourselves as a reaction to the trauma that we were facing. My birth certificate says that my mom and dad are white. That’s how much they didn’t want me or anyone else in the family to be labeled as an ‘Indian.’ It’s really offensive when you think about it.”
“Catherine and Alfonso must have thought I was the biggest asshole for about three or four years,” Salas continues with a laugh when talking about how the film balances the music of the artists being profiled with their cultural ancestry. “I just didn’t want us to lean on the racial aspect, and I was adamant about that. It’s so easy to be negative, and in many cases it’s justified to be negative because it pisses you off so f**king much, so we fought and fought, but Catherine and Alfonso danced through these narratives and found this thread that unites everyone in a love of music first and foremost, and they pulled it off so wonderfully. It wasn’t easy for them to do that, but they made sure that everything that needed to be said was in there and so delicately handled.”