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The Pulse of Native Rhythms



— October 4, 2019

The Pulse of Native Rhythms

  • Stevie Salas realized indigenous people didn’t feel they had many musical role models.

When guitarist Stevie Salas returned home to Indian country in the early 2000s after touring with Rod Stewart, he realized indigenous people didn’t feel they had many musical role models. Salas knew otherwise. Many musicians Salas respected had Native American roots.

Salas set out to write a book, which morphed into an exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian. That evolved into a film; research not only unearthed the rich diversity of Native American rock and blues musicians but also their astounding influence on some of the world’s most innovative musicians.

For example, drummer Randy Castillo, of Spanish and Native descent, dazzled Ozzy Osbourne, Mötley Crüe and others in and out of heavy metal. The guitar playing of Jesse Ed Davis, of Kiowa and Comanche ancestry, enchanted the likes of Eric Clapton, John Lennon and Jackson Browne.

And Link Wray, the Shawnee guitar innovator, and his 1958 blues vamp “Rumble”—with its raw power chords, novel electric feedback, and steady, hypnotic drumbeat—influenced just about everyone.

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“Jeff Beck told me that he and Jimmy Page when they were 17 used to jump around at his mom’s house playing air guitar to Link Wray,” Salas recounts.

“These are some of the most influential guitarists who ever lived. Here they were all studying the style of this Native American guitarist named Link Wray. I thought that [Native] people need to know about this. But it just turned into a much bigger thing when we realized what an influence these [indigenous] musicians were to the greatest musicians who ever lived.”

“Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World,” on which Salas was an executive producer, premiered in 2017 at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Special Jury Prize for Masterful Storytelling, followed by a string of other awards.

Integral to “Rumble” is the connection between black and Native histories. Male African slaves gravitated to women of another oppressed people, Native Americans, observes historian Erich Jarvis in the film, explaining why 85% of African Americans with a pre-Civil War history have some Native ancestry.

In the film, Ivan Neville of the New Orleans–based Neville Brothers, who have Choctaw ancestry, likens the ethnic mix to a gumbo. “Everything comes out flavorful,” Neville says.

The collision of cultures is apparent when comparing the “call and response” element of gospel and blues, for example, with a similar dynamic in Native music.

Among musical trailblazers who were spotlighted was Charlie Patton, considered the “Father of the Delta Blues,” who was believed to have white, black and Native ancestry, and was revered by Clapton, Bob Dylan and Jack White, among many others. Jazz singer Mildred Bailey, an influence on Tony Bennett, was born into the Coeur d’Alene tribe of Idaho. She attributed her singing style to the Native songs of her youth.

“We carry around medicine, especially the medicine of the arts,” Native singer Buffy Sainte-Marie says in “Rumble.” That’s the good fortune of all music lovers.

Native Music for Every Playlist

Like their elder counterparts, contemporary Native American artists are leaving their mark on the musical landscape. We asked Stevie Salas, executive producer of the documentary “Rumble” and guitarist who has played with Rod Stewart and Mick Jagger, to identify some of today’s Native musicians he considers essential listening.


Taboo made a big leap as a solo artist in 2017 when the music video for “Stand Up/ Stand N Rock #NoDAPL,” recorded by Taboo and other Native artists, won the MTV Music Video award in the newly added “Best Fight Against the System” category. The song rallied the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in their fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline. “I love the way Taboo is still growing as an artist. He has sold over 60 million records with The Black Eyed Peas but as a solo artist he isn’t afraid to get down in the soil while constantly connecting with his Shoshone [tribal] roots,” Salas says.


“PJ comes from Native American music royalty. His father is Pat Vegas from the great band Redbone. I love that PJ uses his special high, sweet voice to bring love and melody back in a pop music world full of singers who can’t sing,” Salas says. Hip hop and R&B are the styles with the most appeal to Vegas, though he is also influenced by his father and the Beatles. “When it comes to my music, I want my pain to be felt, my struggle to be understood, my heart to be raw,” Vegas once told Indian Country Today. “I want to paint a picture with every verse, every beat.”


Influenced by musicians as diverse as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Michael Jackson, Tupac Shakur and the Wu Tang Clan, rapper Drezus is a multiple award winner. A member of the Plains Cree, he grew up on the rural plains of Canada. With a voice that has been described as a baritone bark, his music has reflected a tough street life and deep spirituality. “Drezus is an old soul and one of my favorite hip hop artists,” Salas says. “He speaks about the state of indigenous young people and comes from a place of power and confidence. I like a guy who is man enough to really care about sensitive issues but when crossed can still kick ass if necessary.”


“Melissa Pash comes from a small reservation near the Hudson Bay. I fell in love with her sweet, kind soul when I heard her song ‘United,’” Salas says. Pash, who has been writing music since age four, has worked to help other aspiring Cree musicians navigate the recording industry. Her music features traditional drumming and a contemporary pop-rock sound.


The Plateros are a three-piece award-winning family band from the Navajo Nation in Tohajiilee, New Mexico. “They have ancient souls. Their blues music runs deeper than most,” Salas says. The Plateros emerged on the music scene in 2004 as a blues rock power trio that attracted listeners of Stevie Ray Vaughn, Los Lonely Boys and ZZ Top. After a decade, Levi Platero left to make it on his own. “Take Me Back,” the single from his self-titled 2016 EP, won the New Mexico Music Award for Best Blues.


Indigenous carries the musical torch of front man Mato Nanji’s father, Greg Zephier, Sr., a respected spiritual advisor and member, with his brothers, of the musical group The Vanishing Americans. Nanji was raised on the Yankton Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, where he was exposed to his father’s collection of blues records by Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan and B.B. King. Nanji, his brother, sister and cousin formed Indigenous while in their late teens. “Mato Nanji is one of the best guitar players in the world,” Salas says. “I didn’t say best indigenous guitar players—I mean he can stand tall with the best on the planet. A guy like him is one great song away from becoming global.”


This popular Canadian DJ collective bills itself as “a modern gateway into urban and contemporary indigenous culture and experience, celebrating all its layers and complexity.” Its music is informed by modern hip hop, traditional pow wow drums and vocals, and edgy electronic music production. The duo, Bear Witness and 2oolman, are helping provide the soundtrack to a renewed Aboriginal rights movement in Canada. “Tribe could be on the edge of breaking globally,” Salas says. “Their mix of old- school synths and grooves with anthem-like songs gets the crowd in the clubs going. I’m watching these guys close. If they can collaborate with the right songwriter/producers they can take things to a new level.”


Cody Blackbird’s lead vocals are sometimes gruff, sometimes sweet, but always soulful. With his Cody Blackbird Band, he melds contemporary blues rock and hints of reggae with traditional Native American flute. High-strung as a child, Blackbird was soothed through restless nights by the sounds of ceremonial music and traditional flute, which he has been playing since age 9. He was the youngest in the history of the Native American Music Association to be awarded “Flutist of the Year.” “Cody breathes history though his lungs but doesn’t live in the past. A true communicator and a hard worker. An amazing talent indeed,” Salas says.


For more articles in our Native Trails Series, see below:
Native Trails
A Relay Through Time
Throwing Darts
Reclaiming A Narrative
Revival From the EARTH

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