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Getting In Touch With His Roots : Pop music: Former Band stalwart Robbie Robertson, who is half Mohawk, creates the music for TBS' 'The Native Americans' and gets a chance to explore traditional and contemporary Native American styles.

October 04, 1994|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Make a recording of Native American music?" says Robbie Robertson with a laugh. "Are you kidding?

"If I had called the record company five years ago and told them I was going to do what I've just done, they would've said, 'I'm sorry, we've got a bad connection here. Did you just say something really weird?' "

But what Robertson has, in fact, just done--release an album of his music for TBS' upcoming six-hour series "The Native Americans" (scheduled for Monday, Oct. 11 and 13)--turns out to not be very weird at all. The person, the project and the timing have all come together with remarkable synchronicity.

A Mohawk descendant whose mother was raised on the Six Nations Reservation near Windsor, Ontario, Robertson, 50, has only rarely referred to his Native American lineage during his long and varied career as a primal member of the Band, a solo artist and film composer.

When the project came up, Robertson decided, "Wow, this is fate. The timing is right; people are ready for something like this, now."

Leaning back in the control room of a West L.A. recording studio, occasionally plucking at an unplugged electric guitar, he explains: "But then I realized that they came to me not out of fate but out of default. Think about the number of people who do film music, make records and have a Native American heritage--and I may be the only one on the list. So the mysticism went right out of that concept."

The album, "The Native Americans," which also features the Red Road Ensemble--a catch-all description for a collection of performers that includes Rita and Priscilla Coolidge, the Silver Cloud Singers, Douglas Spotted Eagle, Kashtin, Ulali and Jim Wilson--is far more than a simple assortment of background music for a documentary. Much of it is based on chants and traditional music from several different Nations.

A number of the songs written or co-written by Robertson are inspired by the words of Native American chiefs and elders. And it is all an eloquent aural synthesis--Robertson calls it "modern traditional"--that makes a convincing case for the further exposition of the still largely unknown musical arts of Native Americans.

"I've been wanting to make this record all my life, needing to make this record at some point, and maybe now, at this point, needing it even more than ever," he says. "Because I've gone all the way around the mountain, and now that I'm back where I started from, I get it a little bit more. Now I'm able to understand it better."

Memories aside, Robertson had no desire to strictly reach into the past with the project.

"In the show," he says, "these people talk about their histories and their tradition in today's voices, from a 1994 point of view. And I felt I needed to do that musically too."

Equally important, in Robertson's mind, was the need to convey a feeling of togetherness--a rapprochement of ideas and attitudes that has not always been common among Native American Nations in the past.

"So I decided to subtitle the project 'In Unity,' " he says, "because I felt the job wasn't to describe the differences between all the participants on the album but to describe the power that emerges when their different Nations--Cherokee, Innui, Lakota, Choctaw and so forth--come together."

Beyond the restoration of his own roots, beyond the desire to find a unity in the musical expressions of a widely divergent group of creative Native Americans, Robertson's further goal was at least to begin the task of clearing away the clouds of centuries of misunderstanding.

"Most of my younger Native American friends are not in any way looking for sympathy, and they're not looking to lay guilt on anybody," he says. "They have their dignity, and they do what they do.

"They speak in a very bold way--a lot like the quotes I've used from Black Elk and Chief Seattle. The quotes are bold and proud, and this generation is expressing itself in the same way. I love that feeling. It shakes me all over, it's so powerful."

Robertson nods his head, still captured by the feeling.

"Look," he says, "half of this record is not even in English. And I don't think it matters. I just want to send out this heartbeat and this mood to the world and say, 'Here's a taste of it.' Because all you know is that movie stuff--that 'BOOM boom boom boom, BOOM boom boom boom.' And, in 1994, that's not what's going on in this community."

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