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Rumble at the Falls to start with echoes of native drums across the border

The documentary "Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World" revealed the little-recognized role of indigenous people in creating rock and roll.

And at the heart of indigenous rhythms is the drum.

That link will be explored and celebrated – with a nod to "Rumble," which has not yet been shown locally – at a free, live concert dubbed "Rumble at the Falls" starting at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 19, at Niagara Parks' Oakes Garden Theater in Niagara Falls, Ont.

But first, with the roar of the mighty Niagara Falls as a backdrop, drums will communicate, calling and responding, from the Observation Deck at Prospect Point to the Oakes Garden concert grounds.

"This is something that's never been done before, and it's a really innovative way to place the indigenous expression onto the falls and onto that area," said Tim Johnson, who was co-executive producer of "Rumble."

Johnson, a native of North Tonawanda, worked with Michele-Elise Burnett of Buffalo, artistic director of Celebration of Nations, on the concept for the drum exchange before the concert.

"Rumble at the Falls" is just the latest form presenting the information Johnson and Stevie Salas gathered about a decade ago for an exhibit titled  “Up Where We Belong: Native Musicians In Popular Culture," at the Smithsonian Institution's Washington and New York galleries.

"We have gone from the exhibition at the Smithsonian to the film and now to a live performance concert, all telling the same story," said Johnson. "We'll be featuring some segments or clips from the film in between parts of the concert to help the viewer understand the significance of particular artists."

The documentary explores the vital but little-recognized contributions of such Native musicians as Charley Patton, Mildred Bailey, Peter Lafarge, Link Wray, Jimi Hendrix, Jesse Ed Davis, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Robbie Robertson.

"To a large extent, music of the concert will be from the people featured in the film," said Johnson.

Scheduled to perform at the Niagara Falls concert are jazz singer Juliet Dunn, musician Rob Lamothe and his son, drummer Zander Lamothe, singer Rebecca Miller, singer and songwriter Mark LaForme, drummer Matt Dematteo, bass player Ritchie Franzen, and the group The Ollivanders. Derek Miller will lead the musicians as they perform songs that tell the story of Native contributions to roots, blues, jazz, folk and rock.

"Derek Miller is a two-time Juno award winner who has put together this core band, with guest performers," said Johnson, who worked with Miller on the 2015 album "Rumble: A Tribute to Native Music Icons," which was nominated for a Juno Award for Indigenous Music Album of the Year.

"The album contains 12 tracks, all songs written by the artists who were featured in the exhibition," said Johnson. "Derek will be playing at least six of those."

The concert performances will be interspersed with video clips from "Rumble," which won Sundance Film Festival and Hot Docs awards this year.

Allan Jamieson (Cayuga), and Philip Davis (Mohawk), will have greater aural power when they strike a big multiple-person drum on the American side of the Niagara gorge on Aug. 19 in the Drums Across Niagara program that will precede a free, live concert across the river called Rumble at the Falls. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

But first, the drums will echo back and forth across the gorge, a distance of about 1,400 feet as the crow flies.

The twin-drums idea came from Burnett. "She had this idea of connecting in peace and unity in an expression across the gorge," said Johnson. "The moment she told me, I said, "We have to do this.' As we were working on this concert, we said, 'Let's do it before the concert so we can attract attention to the fact that the concert is happening.' In and of itself, it's a really super cool thing."

"The drum is so powerful for our people," said Burnett. "I had a dream for years about having drums on both sides of the border."

After scoping out the distance early this week, Burnett said, "Sounds will be a challenge for sure, but the message will still be strong."

The concert will be presented by Rezolution Pictures in association with the Niagara Parks Commission and the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre. In addition to the usual parking lots and street spaces, Niagara Parks will run a free shuttle service to and from Rapidsview Parking Lot for the event. Rapidsview Parking Lot, 7369 Niagara Parkway, is just past Dufferin Islands between Burning Springs Hill and Upper Rapids Boulevard.

The drums that will echo back and forth across the gorge may be played by four to eight drummers. "They won't be playing the rock and roll that we're going to have at the concert," said Johnson. "This is the traditional drumming, the 4/4 rhythm is the heartbeat, we're sending the heartbeat back and forth across the river."

Big drum groups will stand on the deck of the Observation Tower at Prospect Point in Niagara Falls State Park and at Oakes Garden Theater, which is located at 5825 River Road at the foot of Clifton Hill and contains a curved pergola and lawns. Visitors may even be able to see both groups, said Johnson. "But even just standing along the rail at the gorge and hearing this stuff go back and forth will be pretty cool."

"It's still going to be need to be amplified; we want to really kick it across from one side to the other," said Johnson. "Then it's going to be a call-and-response program. One drum group will do a song, and as soon as they stop, the other drum group will come in from the other side. You'll be hearing this thing going back and forth for about a half-hour."

"You will have Prospect Point talking, then pausing, and the sounds of the drum coming back from Canadian venue," said Burnett.

The big drum at Oakes Garden Theatre, on the Niagara Parkway at the foot of Clifton Hill in front of the Sheraton, will be visible and audible to those who show up for the half-hour drum session on the Observation Tower at Prospect Point. Those who wish to attend the free, live "Rumble at the Falls" concert on the Canadian side may bring lawn chairs or blankets. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Johnson suggested concertgoers might bring blankets or lawn chairs to Oakes Garden Theatre. The venue, he said, "is stunningly beautiful. As an audience member, with the stage in the middle, you see the American falls as a backdrop to the left, and the Canadian falls as backdrop to the right. It's like the world's greatest outdoor performance venue."

“Not only is Niagara Parks invested in presenting the stories of Indigenous involvement in Canada’s history, as we do at a number of our heritage sites and natural attractions, but we are also excited to be involved in this project, highlighting the contributions that continue to influence our society today,” said Niagara Parks Chairwoman Janice Thomson in a statement.

The concert itself will open with a traditional thanksgiving invocation to Mother Earth by Faithkeeper Rick McLean. "We allow the spirits to come in and join us, and at the end there is a closing to allow the spirits to leave our activity or ceremony," said Burnett. "It's beautiful."

Burnett and Johnson also have worked together on a flag representing the Guswenta, or the Two-Row Wampum Belt, a 1613 beadwork contract with which the Haudenosaunee formalized their agreement to peacefully coexist with the Dutch by "walking in parallel paths together," said Burnett. They plan to use the new flag to signal across the gorge to the other drum.

"Cellphones aren't that reliable there, and walkie-talkies might not work either," said Burnett. "So we started laughing and said, 'Why don't we just use our flag?'"

As they scramble to make the final arrangements for the concert, both Johnson and Burnett expressed excitement about the historical, musical, visual and aural features of the multifaceted evening.

"There's the tie-in with Rumble," said Johnson. "The falls are constantly rumbling, and providing the energy to feed into what is going to be largely a rock concert. Isn't that a cool thing? It's not somebody going over the falls in a barrel or going across the gorge on a tightrope, but this is the indigenous falls spectacle."


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