Music: Return of the Native

So whatever happened to Robbie Robertson, mainstay of The Band, rock's first supergroup? He went back to his Native American roots, as he tells Andy Gill, and wrote a letter to the President
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The last time we met, back in 1994, Robbie Robertson told me a cute American Indian joke he'd heard from a Native American professor down in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It seems the people from NASA were building a new launch centre out in the desert, when they noticed this old man on the horizon, watching them.

One day, the old man visits them with his grandson, who serves as interpreter. Asked what they are doing, the scientists explain, "We're building things to send people up into the sky." The boy tells his grandfather, who responds, "What's the big deal? My ancestors have been going up into the sky for thousands of years!" Patronising him, the scientists say, "Well, if you want to send a message to your ancestors, you can come and put it on a tape, and we'll send it up to them." The next day, the old man returns and tapes a message in his native tongue. The scientists, intrigued, ask what the message is. The boy says, "The message is: Don't trust these guys - they'll steal your land!"

At the time, Robertson was fired up with enthusiasm for his latest project, the soundtrack to the television documentary The Native Americans, which had re-awoken his interest in his own heritage. For one of the more rewarding ironies of rock culture is that Robertson, who managed to express the benighted colonial history of America with such sympathy and sensitivity on the The Band's peerless second album, is actually from the Mohawk tribe, one of the Iroquois Six Nations situated up above Lake Erie in Canada.

"Your first memories," he says, "are of these stories being passed on". Few from his community, however, can have progressed as well as Robertson in the culture which supplanted theirs. He's been Bob Dylan's guitarist, Martin Scorsese's musical director, and The Band's songwriter. The likes of U2 and Peter Gabriel queue up to play on his records. He's played guitar duels with Eric Clapton - won them, too - and acted with Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Houston.

He even tried to help free Leonard Peltier, an American Indian Movement activist still held as a political prisoner for the 1975 killing of two FBI agents in a shoot-out between the Bureau and AIM - despite a distinct lack of evidence connecting him with the deaths. Peltier's plight has received international attention everywhere, it seems, except in the country which imprisoned him. So Robbie thought he might try and bring it to the notice of his President.

"I didn't think it would have a dramatic effect," he explains, "but I thought I might just be able to catch his attention. When I was playing with Ronnie Hawkins & The Hawks in Arkansas, Bill Clinton used to come and hear us play all the time - he's a wannabe musician, and we were the hottest band in Arkansas - and then with The Band, when he was growing up, I'm the guy that wrote The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down - how's he not gonna read my letter!? And now that I've done this record, I'm going to send him a copy with this song about Leonard."

The record of which Robertson speaks is his new album, Contact From The Underworld Of Redboy, which includes a song, "Sacrifice", that features Peltier - recorded over the phone from prison - explaining his situation, which he bears with uncommon stoic nobility. To the casual observer, the album might appear an extension of the Native Americans soundtrack, but the two records, as Robertson explains, differ widely in intention and execution - though both employ Native American sounds.

He wanted to make a record which was more reflective of him personally, rather than one which had to comply with the confines of a documentary. "I wanted to do this with no rules, do it the way I imagined it, say it in my own voice." Before he started, however, he consulted with some of the Six Nations chiefs about the protocol of using Native sounds.

"I said, `I want to do this record with my best strengths, but I want to do something really bold.' And this one chief said, `In that case, don't try and pretend that you know what it was like 300, 200, 100 years ago - don't try and make a traditional record, that's not what you know; if you want to do this with your strengths do it in the way you understand it today.' "

To this end, he set about building an arsenal of sounds and collaborators, selecting samples from his library of Native rhythms, chants and sounds, recording new parts with musicians from the Six Nations and down in the American south-west, at the Navajo Nation, and enlisting the help of programmers and technicians from the British dance scene, such as Howie B, Marius De Vries and Tim Gordine.

"The reason I chose them is that they're better, more progressive in this area, than people in the States," he explains. "There was a certain sensibility I felt from people here, that it was not something from their own backyard, not something they felt guilty about.

"But basically, I picked these people because they're good on their axe, whatever it may be - whether it's beating on a log with a stick, or dealing with the tools of today."

The result is, as he says, the kind of record that none of them, Indians or Brits, had ever heard before, full of music suspended between cultures, offering proud assertion of Robertson's Native heritage within a hypnotic rhythmic matrix easily recognisable by rave and trance habitues. "The club world, the DJ world, and my world," Robertson claims, "they're all about tribal gatherings, all of our backgrounds".

While the music and the mixing style owe much to the British collaborators, the lyric material is firmly rooted in Native American matters. Our old Indian man chatting to the NASA scientist would surely have appreciated it.

"You hear people talk about the lights in Indian country all the time, very matter of factly," explains Robertson. "All over Indian country you'll find ancient rock drawings, and you'll recognise them as drawings of aliens."

There's hundreds of stories about the lights, and all of them are about seeing `the relatives from far away'. And they're always about how great it was to have that opportunity. It's more like, `Oh, the relatives are back!' It's an interesting contrast in the way people view these things."