For Robbie Robertson, former leader of seminal '60s rock group the Band, the recording of his latest solo album, Contact From the Underworld of Red Boy, was literally like going home again.
That process -- in which the gravel-voiced singer/songwriter journeyed back to the Six Nations Indian reservation in Toronto, where he spent his summers as a child -- is chronicled in the Thursday night (Aug. 13) PBS special "Robbie Robertson: Making a Noise -- A Native American Musical Journey."
The one-hour special begins with the sound of Robertson intoning, "Long before the white man was here, or the black man, or any man except the red man ... this music was here." Robertson, 54, whose mother, a Mohawk Indian, was born and raised on the Six Nations reservation, is seen returning there after several decades and reconnecting with his musical and cultural heritage by partnering with traditional musicians and spiritual guides.
Robertson, who has collaborated with everyone from big-name rockers Peter Gabriel and U2 on his 1987 solo debut to a host of traditional Native American artists on his 1994 soundtrack album, Music for "The Native Americans", easily bridges the gap between ancient and modern music on his new album. Amid the disc's seamless sonic mixture of dance beats and traditional music, he weaves in social observation and a political message about the plight of Native American people.
After the experience of Music for "The Native Americans", Robertson said he felt an even greater pull to return to his long-submerged musical roots. That musical journey is depicted in his trip back to his ramshackle old home on the reservation, where he is surrounded by long-lost cousins, who sit to jam with him and remind Robertson of where he first learned to play music.
Like the album, the television special is an ancient/modern mix of footage, tracing the tortured history of Native Americans as well as the modern devices used to record such songs as the spooky tribal-beat track "Sacrifice" (RealAudio excerpt). The tune features a narrative from imprisoned American Indian Movement leader Leonard Peltier. "Peyote Healing" includes cameos from a pair of Peyote healers, Primeaux and Mike, who provide the haunting vocals for the trance-inducing, nearly a cappella track.
"Robbie has given all native people a lot of strength, because I've seen how aggressively he goes after his historical thirst of his people," Cherokee singer Rita Coolidge says in the special.
Coolidge, who can be heard on the raucous track "Making a Noise" (RealAudio excerpt), which features traditional frame drumming from Geoffrey Gordon, as well as computerized programming from co-producer Marius De Vries (Björk), later praises Robertson for bringing the sound of Native American music to the pop-music arena.
"It's part of his magic of being able to record with all these other elements ... he's bringing it to today because we've had to hide so much of our culture for so long," Coolidge says.
The special mixes footage of Robertson jamming in the studio, with such Native American musicians as Cree Summer and poet/singer John Trudell, with stock footage of traditional dances and ceremonies, such as the never-before-filmed peyote healing ceremony.
"It's a way of connecting with the creator through a sacred experience," Robertson said earlier this year of the ceremony, which he claimed the U.S. government has attempted to ban. "It's not whacked-out partying. They feel they can do something with the use of this natural thing that grows out of ground to block out the everyday b---s--- and go to a place that's between you and higher power."
The segment is one of several politically charged vignettes, in which Robertson explores the troubled relationship between the U.S. government and the Native American population.
Trudell tells the story of the 1975 shootout between FBI agents and members of the American Indian Movement on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, which resulted in the death of two FBI agents and one Native American and the imprisonment of Peltier. Trudell describes Robertson's musical efforts as "using ancient songs to sing to the about-to-be-extinct."
As a way of further closing the circle of his return to the reservation, Robertson traces his musical beginnings in the late '50s, backing up rockabilly legend Ronnie Hawkins and folk giant Bob Dylan before creating such lasting American folk-rock classics as "The Weight" and
"The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" (RealAudio excerpt) with the Band.
The special also examines the often-stereotypical way in which Native Americans have been portrayed by Hollywood, offsetting those images with scenes of true-life reservation living and pow-wow ceremonies. "It was like making this big painting," Robertson says near the special's end. "You paint in the background and then you paint in the figures and it all starts to add up."