American Roots Rock
Chuck, the lead singer of Guardians, has his front boot planted on a black box emblazoned with the group’s name. It helps him heave up his dark-clad stocky frame more menacingly as he barks and growls black-metal songs. Like his bandmates, Chuck has his face plastered in white “corpse paint,” with spikes of black over and under his eyes. His pants are cut off raggedly below the knees, maybe for relief from the heat of stage lights in an Arizona summer or maybe for extra horror-movie effect.
To his sides are bandmates brandishing flying-V guitars, the one on the right throwing himself forward on the instrument’s neck like a racer at the finish line, the one on the left arching back so his heavily painted face reflects the spotlight. Chuck mounts the box, thumps his chest, and bellows “Come on!” beckoning the slightly shy crowd into the mosh pit. In the modest, low-ceilinged Yucca Tap Room in Tempe, it doesn’t take many headbangers to fill it. As the pit gets going, an older man in a jean jacket and thick braids at a table near the back of the bar yells out, “I’m so very happy to be here!” Everyone nearby bursts out laughing.
The collective laughter partly stems from this chipper remark’s contrast with the music’s raging threat but also from everyone else being equally happy. They’re at Native Bash, a rare showcase for 13 Native American metal bands from reservations across the American West. Guardians come from the Mexican-border-straddling Tohono O’odham Nation in the Sonora Desert. The other metal groups hail from Native American communities around Arizona, South Dakota, and New Mexico. The audience, too, is mostly Native, many of them migrants to the city who are thankful, as organizer Manny Jimenez puts it, for “a little taste of home.”
“Metal is very big on the reservations,” says Jimenez, a Mexican-American in his late twenties who was introduced to the scene by his Native American wife and became an instant devotee. “It’s a way for everybody to show emotion, to show how they feel.”
The existence of this music genre may surprise people who think of Native American music—if they think of it at all—as traditional chants and drums, or perhaps folk and protest singers such as Buffy Sainte-Marie. But there are indigenous musicians today in genres from rock, country, hip-hop, dance music, and the avant-garde. Metal is among the most popular. After all, it was the late Shawnee guitarist Link Wray who invented power chords and electric distortion with his 1958 instrumental single “Rumble” (reportedly with the help of a pencil jammed into an amplifier). Wray paved the way for The Who, Jimi Hendrix (said to be part Cherokee), Black Sabbath, and punks such as Iggy Pop and The Ramones. A documentary on the topic, Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, recently traveled the film-festival circuit.
Native Americans’ affinity for metal makes sense when you consider the hard drumming and keening vocals prevalent in traditional indigenous music. But according to various band members hanging out in the Yucca Tap Room parking lot, metal is also a more direct inheritance, via cassette tapes and burned CDs passed down from relatives. What enticed them was what teens have always liked about metal, the chance to get riled up and exorcise stinging feelings, which can have a special kind of weight in Native American contexts.
Michael Begay, the mild-mannered guitarist for Akklamation, a “melodic black/thrash metal band” based several hours north in Tuba City, Arizona, on the western edge of the Navajo Nation, says metal can be a catharsis for young people who’ve had to deal with poverty and dysfunction. “Some of these people have pain, real pain, you know?” he says. “This helps. This is what we’ve got, and sometimes it’s all that you have.”
Political themes figure in quite a few of the sets, not to mention the names of bands such as Rez of War, Uncommon Knowledge, Tribal Kills, and Navajo thrash trio i dont konform (the spelling underlines the point). They’re probably the best-known group on the Native Bash bill, having worked in Europe with a former Metallica producer, and the one that draws the loudest screaming. Tonight, they play a protest rager against environmental transgressions on Native lands.
“Metal is a great vehicle for those kinds of messages,” says Corey Bettelyoun, the drummer for Uncommon Knowledge, an Ogala Lakota group from western South Dakota that’s stopping in on its first tour. In his day job, Bettelyoun has worked with cultural preservation organizations on art and music shows. “But I don’t think that should be metal’s only purpose. There’s also a lot of joking and funny stuff in our lyrics.”
Around 1 a.m., Indar, the lead singer of Existence AD, is prowling the stage with her half-shaved and scarlet-dyed hair. When she vaults from guttural grunts to her high register, the effect is a bit like riot-grrrl-style punk and even some cadences in traditional Native music. The women in the room go wild.
“This is called ‘Brain Damage’ and it’s for all you crazy mothers!” she yells, albeit using the full version of the epithet. At that moment, a line of five young white girls in tight dresses stroll into the Yucca Tap Room, clearly at the end of a night of club-hopping. (On other nights, the bar often hosts ska or indie rock.) They stop and stare for about three minutes and then turn and walk right out again. Everyone is welcome at Native Bash, but it’s not necessarily for everyone. And, like any metal show, that’s part of what’s special about it.
Indar throws her hands up, casts her gaze across the throng, and lets out a scream. “You guys are effin’ beautiful!”