Native American Influence On Rock

Alfonso Maiorana’s Rumble explores invaluable contributions

2017/05/04 - Written by Sal Difalco
Native American Influence On Rock
Native American Influence On Rock
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“Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet,” wrote philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. And while bitterness didn’t poison Montreal director Alfonso Maiorana’s long wait for opportunity and success, the fruits have certainly been sweet. The film he co-directed, Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, rocked the Sundance Film Festival in January, taking home a Special Jury Award for Masterful Storytelling in Documentary Film.

“It’s been a long time coming,” admits Maiorana, 51, whose ambition to be a film director was put on hold back in the late 1990s when funding fell through for his first full-length feature, a film about his life in the rough-and-tumble neighbourhood of Pointe-aux-Trembles. “I had a six-month-old son,” he explains. “Things were tight. Making a feature film is stressful. It takes its toll on your family.”

When the film was shelved, Maiorana remained true to his working-class Avellino roots and worked as a camera operator to put bread on the table after the film. The birth of his daughter three years later was a blessing to the family, and further responsibility, but dampened neither his fidelity nor his resolve. 

In time, his hard-earned expertise with the camera paid off. “Christina Fon, a producer with Rezolution Pictures, introduced me to Catherine Bainbridge and Ernest Webb, a Cree from James Bay, who founded the company 25 years ago. They were interested in doing a project on the influence of Native Americans on rock and roll.”

An admitted music junkie, Maiorana did some initial camerawork for them, but when Bainbridge saw how passionate he was about the material, she asked him to co-write and co-direct Rumble. Needless to say, he dove headfirst into the production. If Maiorana’s story is one of a dream deferred, the story of Native influence on popular music, particularly rock and roll, is one of credit deferred.

Rumble, which is set to air on Super Channel and PBS, brings to the screen the story of a missing but essential chapter in the history of North American music. The film was inspired by Brian Wright-McLeod’s Encyclopedia of Native Music, as well as the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian exhibit, “Up Where We Belong: Native Musicians In Popular Culture,” created by associate director for museum programs Tim Johnson and guitarist Stevie Salas.

Mildred Bailey, Charley Patton, Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters, Hank Williams, Link Wray, Jimi Hendrix, the Neville Brothers, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Robbie Robertson . . . the sheer number of artists of Native descent who contributed to the evolution of rock and roll is eye-opening; one would be hard-pressed to imagine the genre, as we know it, without them.

“The 4/4 beat we associate with blues and rock,” Maiorana asserts, “comes from the Native drumbeat, tied to old rituals and songs to bless Mother Earth. African drummers used an 8/8 beat.” In a sense, he sees the 4/4 beat’s pervasiveness as the sweetest revenge for the once systemic banning of Native drum music. “Not to downplay European and African influences,” he says, “but the indigenous contribution to rock and roll and North American music in general had never been fully acknowledged.”

Until now, that is. Patience does yield sweet fruit. Things are good these days for Maiorana in the Montreal borough of Outremont, where he now resides with his family. Happily, he says, his children, Massimiliano, 18, and Celeste, 15, are doing just fine. He’s also pleased to report that he will finally get a chance to complete his feature film about life as the son of Italian immigrants growing up in Pointe-aux-Trembles, negotiating his way through a predominantly French-Canadian and Irish-Catholic world. “It helped me to learn French and English,” he concludes.

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