Rockin’ The Res
by Martin Keller
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – Like Public Enemy’s seething contempt for an unjust social order or Midnight Oil’s attacks on institutional usurpers of the human spirit and the environment, John Trudell’s AKA Grafitti Man (Rykodisc) is simultaneously angry and compassionate, disarming in its acute cultural analysis and satisfying at every juncture.
Rock may be snoring on its laurels, but the Sioux Indian poet, former American Indian Movement (AIM) leader, and film and recording artist awakens the rock form and the listener by blending traditional Indian drumming with his band’s rock assault. Like the talking bluesmen before him, Trudell confronts subjects ranging from the tender to the wicked. The poetic strategy that originated with Trudell and executive producer ] Jackson Browne is realized by a band featuring guitarist Mark Shark, whose riveting guitar work underscores Trudell’s spoken songs.
In the haunting lines of “Tina Smiled,” Trudell remembers his murdered wife, while in “Baby Boom CM,” he offers a personal account of what Elvis meant to American culture (“I know, man, I was in his army”). But it’s “Bombs Over Baghdad” that explodes under the laser light. An indictment of the billion-dollar weapons industry and other “peddlers of death,” Trudell’s song is rife with the horrifying imagery of generals and sheiks drinking “blood and oil cocktails” while “Queen George” presides over the destruction and lies of the Gulf War.[audio:http://taooftunings.com/wp-content/blogs.dir/10/wp-content/uploads/sites/67//2009/02/06-wildfire.mp3″>06-wildfire]
“In the beginning, when I first started making music with [guitarist] Jesse Ed Davis in 1985, we made a conscious decision to make art on record and not just record songs for an album,” Trudell says. “It was a way for us to express truth. Today, the safest place for indigenous people and non-Indian people to express their truths is through art and culture because we live in a time when the institutions of the state don’t tell the truth and everyone knows it. That’s why creating art and culture is so important to our continuation and evolution as spiritual human beings.”
Trudell turned to poetry in 1979 to deal with the devastating grief and loss of his wife, Tina, their three children, and his mother-in-law. His family was killed in a suspicious fire at their home on the Shoshone Paiute reservation in Nevada. Trudell believes the fire was “an act of war” carried out by the U.S. government in its ongoing battle against the American Indian.
At the time, Trudell was highly visible as the National Chairman for AIM, which had successfully occupied Alcatraz Prison in the San Francisco Bay Area and Wounded Knee in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. Both events were world news for the duration of the long and, in the case of Pine Ridge, bloody occupations. Two FBI agents were killed at Pine Ridge; fellow AIM leader Leonard Peltier was charged, many believe unjustly, with the crime. The story is told in an upcoming documentary film by Michael Apted called Incident at Oglala and in a parallel dramatic feature film, Thunderheart (starring Val “Jim Morrison” Kilmer and Sam Shepard). Trudell appears in both movies.
It’s not the first time the Grafitti Man has appeared in a motion picture. He had a cameo in the critically acclaimed Pow Wow Highway, a movie Trudell prefers to Dances With Wolves. Kevin Costner’s film “proves more dangerous to us in the long run:’ he says.” It’s a romantic movie about our past, which makes the Indian and his and her problems invisible today in the present.
Wolves denied us our contemporary setting, which anyone who takes the time will see is full of poverty and other health and social issues.
“People need to see us today for who we are and what we have to offer the wider culture, including our concern for the environment and the spiritual side of us which the system and the marketplace often deny,” Trudell says.
“One thing everybody can do to help get the word out about the things I discuss in my poetry is to call your local radio station and ask them to play the record. Music is dying from the technology it relies on; [technology] can go into infinity, but that human element is getting lost.
Hopefully, by using the spoken word, the traditional Indian music, and contemporary rock, AKA Grafitti Mancan help give this culture a new infusion of human energy.”