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Native Intelligence

Robbie Robertson digs into his past so he can move into the future.

"This is what I was hearing in my mind," he says. "I didn't say to myself, 'You know what? I'm going to mix hip-hop and Indian shit and this and that.' I didn't have those thoughts any more than when I started playing with Bob Dylan. People came up and said, 'You just mixed electric music and folk music! My God, get on your knees and pray!' You know what I mean? People treated it like maybe we should just keep the women and children away from this--and I was like, 'What are you talking about?' I guess they did the same things in the beginning of rock and roll. It was like, 'Oh, no, these people are mixing Delta music and mountain music together. Good God, what's the world coming to?' But this is a healthy thing in music--and musicians know it. I guarantee you that it never crossed Elvis Presley's mind that he was mixing country music and blues music together. He was just doing it the way he heard it. And when I worked with Bob Dylan, none of us ever said, 'My God, you're plugging that guitar in an amplifier! This is against the folk religion!' None of us talked that way. It was just about making music--and so is this.

"When I was making this record, if I could have found the seams, I would have busted it. Really: If it didn't come out sounding completely organic, so that everything sounded like it belonged together, I wouldn't have done it. I'm using the tools of the trade that are available to me right now because I like them and I respect them and I try to play them well. That's it. What's on this record is what I like."

In this regard, Robertson is a rarity among rock veterans. Even Dylan has shied away from branching out into new aural territory; his Time Out of Mind, from last year, may have won lots of Grammy nominations and topped critics' polls, but musically, it's hardly different from the albums he was making three decades ago. Rather than suggest that artists like his old mentor should get out a little more often, though, Robertson chooses to chide those longtimers who go too far in the other direction by trying on every new fad that comes down the pike.

"I heard some of the stuff that David Bowie did--the drum-and-bass stuff--and I don't buy it. It sounds trendy, like it's trying to be something it's not. It doesn't sound musical to me. It sounds like somebody who's doing it for the wrong reasons. Now, I think that David Bowie has done some great stuff over the years, and I know him and I have respect for him as a musician, so I'm not meaning to pick on him in particular. There are other people, too, who've done stuff like that, and it sounds to me tacked on, fishy, not real. Whereas I'm not trying to keep up with the times. I'm just doing what I like. I know about this stuff, and the people that I work with I've known a long time, and I hear something about them musically that reaches me. These people are all good on their ax, whatever their ax may be. And when I get them together, it's no different from a filmmaker saying, 'I'm going to make a film about something, and these people are going to be in the cast because I believe that they'll be able to make something honest out of it.' It's just a matter of figuring out how to get it across in a soulful and honest way and not get caught up in the tricks of it. That way, you're not playing the instrument; the instrument is playing you."

Many of the Redboy compositions turn up on Making a Noise, but the documentary (produced and directed by Dana Heinz Perry in conjunction with Academy Award winner Hart Perry) certainly can't be dismissed as a glorified video. In addition to scenes that find Robertson and his associates playing the numbers live and in the studio, the film includes an interview with poet and performer John Trudell (profiled in these pages in "Native American Graffiti," September 15, 1993); there'a also shocking archival footage from schools where teachers tried to (in Robertson's words) "beat the Indian out of the kids," and sequences in which Robertson gets reacquainted with Six Nations kin he hasn't seen since his teen years. That's a great deal to squeeze in, and at times Making a Noise suffers from its efforts to cover every conceivable base. But it's also earnest and tasteful, and it avoids the trap of turning Native Americans into museum pieces.

"I wanted to do this in today's light," Robertson says. "This is the original roots music of North America, but it's also the biggest musical secret at the same time. You hear people talk about roots music, but I'm sorry--this is the real roots music on this continent, not country music or blues. And nobody's ever heard it except in bad movies. So I wanted to give them a chance--but I wanted it to be about what I hear now: the issues, the sounds, the beats, everything. And when I said, let's talk about what's been passed down, but let's also talk about what's going on now--well, people in the Indian community gave a big 'right on' to that. Because they're tired of being thought about as if they don't even exist anymore. That's a horrible thing, to have people living their lives thinking that they're a relic, just a memory."

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