Guitarist Stevie Salas Talks 'Rumble' Film & Rock's Unsung Heroes: Native Americans

Courtesy of Kino Lorber
Stevie Salas in Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World.

It has been well-documented in narratives like Ken Burns’ Jazz (2001) and Return to Gorée (2007) that African-Americans were the primary force behind blues and jazz, eventually leading into rock 'n' roll. But the lesser-known story is the musical influence of Native Americans.

The feature documentary Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, in select theaters Wednesday, is hoping to change that. When Stevie Salas was selling out arena tours as Rod Stewart’s guitarist back in the 1980s, even he, an Apache Indian from Oceanside, California, looked around and began to notice that others like him weren’t around. He dug more, and eventually his curiosity about his own people’s story led to discoveries of other Native American musicians like Charley Patton, Mildred Bailey, Link Wray, Jimi Hendrix, Jesse Ed Davis, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Robbie Robertson and Randy Castillo helped shape the soundtracks of our lives.

“In those violent and frightening times, music was a healing balm,” says Rumble director Catherine Bainbridge, referring to the trauma both African and Native Americans received at the hands of colonizers.

Billboard talked with Salas about Native American legends in music, the struggles they’ve faced, and the current state of the Native American music scene.

What was it like after so many years of telling this story to get it to the screen and, ultimately, a bigger audience?

I was super excited to sit in a room with Ronnie Wood from The Rolling Stones and listen to him tell me stories about Jesse Ed Davis with his eyes lit up like a 5-year-old; the excitement in Steven Tyler's eyes matched that. Or when Jeff Beck told me about him and Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin at 17, jumping around in his bedroom at his mom's house playing air guitar to Link Wray. As a music fan, those moments blew my mind.

As a Native American person, what really hit me was sitting in a room with Cyril Neville from the Neville Brothers or Monk Boudreaux from The Wild Magnolias and seeing the anger and pain about being forced to hide [their heritage]. Boudreaux almost whispered, like he was afraid to let the words out that he was an Indian, and the only time he could dress like one was during Mardi Gras because everyone else just thought they were dressing up. For them, it was their only chance to be who they were as human beings. So [as an Indian], those things just hit hard.

The Native American story is one that is so consistently suppressed in mainstream media. Why do you think that is?

My parents, my grandparents and my great-grandparents didn't want to be Indians. Nobody wanted to be an Indian. It was not a good thing to be. And that’s not to say anything negative on Native people, but for instance, my birth certificate says my mother and my father are white. If you were a Mexican in the 1900s, you could stay and have a piece of land and farm. If you were a Native American, you were getting shipped off, so nobody wanted to be an Indian.

My father grew a braid down his back in his mid-40s. Up to that point, he was just trying to be a good American and fit in. As he got older, he started to really get deeper into who he was and wanted to express it. The reason that history wasn't there was because nobody was talking about it. Taboo from the Black Eyed Peas was raised by Mexican-Americans in East Los Angeles and didn't know he was Shoshone until he went to stay with his grandmother who told him his history. Our families -- due to trauma -- kept that type of information [hidden].

How does the contemporary Native American music seem to compare to the historical aspects highlighted in the film?

There's no comparison. There are some real problems with the Native American music scene today. First of all, I'm an Apache. Right? I'm a musician, OK? I played with black guys like George Clinton and Bootsy Collins and white guys like Rod Stewart and Mick Jagger. When it came to the art, I never put race into the element. When I go back to Indian country and sit down with some young guitar player, I can teach him about things that I've learned from that world. But what I see happening now is that [each culture will] only stick together: Native American gigs for Native American people. Native American people like them already, so they're not broadening their audience and they're not growing. I think it's a problem. They do things like the Juno Award in Canada for Native American music, which is kind of cool, but at the same time, if a Native American wins a Juno for best blues album, I wonder why aren’t they in the blues category with the rest of the blues guitar players?

What the film shows should show everybody is that if these guys could do it, anybody can do it. I've had Native American kids come up to me and say, "Stevie, we want to do what you do, but they wouldn't let us." Well, who are "they"? Because whoever they are, they let me.

I want the film to inspire people to know that anything is possible [and not to be dissuaded by] growing up poor. Adam Beach was brought up on a reservation where they had no running water and had to go to the bathroom in a can, and he's a hugely successful actor. Sure, you're going to [have setbacks]. I was told that John Lennon and others used to call Jesse Ed Davis "Indian Ed," and while they meant it as a term of endearment, it might’ve hurt Jesse to hear that. Sometimes we have to take [it] to break through to educate people, and I wanted the film to inspire in that way.