Montreal filmmakers' doc Rumble exposes unheralded influence of Indigenous musicians

They were the power chords that sparked a musical revolution: three growling, fuzzy blasts that made Link Wray's 1958 banned-by-radio instrumental Rumble a rule-breaking inspiration for rock guitarists who followed.

Documentary looks at how musicians like Link Wray, Buffy Sainte-Marie inspired Tony Bennett, Hendrix, Slash

Buffy Sainte-Marie is one of the musicians featured in the documentary, Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World. (Courtesy of Rezolution pictures)

They were the power chords that sparked a musical revolution: three growling, fuzzy blasts that made Link Wray's 1958 banned-by-radio instrumental Rumble a rule-breaking inspiration for rock guitarists who followed.

The song kicks off the documentary Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World, from Montreal-based filmmakers Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorana, which has its world premiere Monday at the Sundance Film Festival.

The documentary explores the often-unheralded contributions of Native Americans in shaping popular song. Wray was a Shawnee Native American but few people were aware of his background. Like him, many of the musicians profiled in Rumble either kept their heritage secret or downplayed it, fearing racist backlash.

"Where in this day and age can you find things that are hidden?" said Bainbridge, whose award-winning documentary Reel Injun explored the portrayal of Native Americans in movies and on TV.

"That's the secret sauce, this hidden gem of a story," Bainbridge said of how "these incredible icons" inspired so many famous performers seen in the documentary.

Guitarist and songwriter Robbie Robertson of the Band shares childhood memories of time he spent on the Brantford, Ont.-area Six Nations of the Grand River reserve with his mother's family. He was advised: "Be proud you are Indian; but be careful who you tell."

Whether the musicians in Rumble talked about their backgrounds or not, their heritage influenced the work, including 1920s Delta bluesman Charley Patton, "Queen of Swing" Mildred Bailey, rock legend Jimi Hendrix and guitarist Jesse Ed Davis, who worked with blues musician Taj Mahal, John Lennon and the Rolling Stones.
Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World is premiering at Sundance Film Festival. (Facebook/Rezolution Pictures)

Through archival footage and powerful performances, Indigenous artists are acknowledged as influences by more than three dozen marquee performers, including crooner Tony Bennett, funk father George Clinton, Guns N' Roses guitarist Slash and proto-punk legend Iggy Pop.

Many of them agreed to appear in Rumble because of their friendship with the film's executive producer, guitarist Stevie Salas.

Salas said he had no idea there were so many Native musicians until he was interviewed by Canadian writer Brian Wright-McLeod for his 2004 book The Encyclopedia of Native Music.

"It was a learning experience for many," Salas said. "When I was a kid, my first band was (playing with) Rod Stewart, just out of high school. I didn't look like everybody else. I'm an Apache Indian. I was looking around, how come there's no Indians playing rock 'n' roll?"

Salas teamed with Tim Johnson (also an executive producer on Rumble) to create Up Where We Belong: Native Musicians in Popular Culture, an exhibit for the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. It was named for the 1982 hit song co-written by Canadian singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie, who also appears in Rumble.

Having seen Reel Injun, Salas approached Rezolution Pictures — which was founded by Bainbridge and her husband Ernest Webb — about using the Smithsonian exhibit as an inspiration for a documentary.

"I knew nothing about Link Wray and the influence that he had," said Bainbridge. "Musicians know these people and how influential they are. It's time other people knew."