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April 2nd, 2014 MATTHEW SINGER | Music Stories
 

A Tribe Called Red: Thursday, April 3

For the innovators of “powwow-step,” the party is always political.

music_atribecalledred_4022A TRIBE CALLED RED: (From left) DJ NDN, DJ Shub and Bear Witness. - IMAGE: Pat Bolduc
Like a lot of native North Americans, Bear Thomas didn’t grow up with many heroes who looked like him. Searching for a reflection of himself in popular media, all he’d find were the same red-faced, tomahawk-chopping stereotypes that confronted his parents and grandparents. A Tribe Called Red, the DJ group Thomas and two other First Nations members started in Ottawa, Canada, with the idea of integrating traditional aboriginal music into modern electronic dance styles, wasn’t necessarily intended to give the younger generation something to look up to: They just wanted to make party music. But as they’ve found out, an indigenous person can’t enter the public sphere without shouldering certain burdens. It means too much—and not just to the kids.

“We hear stories of whole families listening to us, and sometimes it’s Grandpa who discovered it first,” says Thomas, who records under the name Bear Witness. “We haven’t had something that reflected indigenous people, made by indigenous people, that was out there in popular culture before. So even for people of an older generation, even if they don’t necessarily understand the music, the concept is exciting.”

Growing out of Electric Powwow, the monthly party Thomas, along with Ian “DJ NDN” Campeau and Dan “DJ Shub” General, has hosted in Ottawa since 2008, the music of A Tribe Called Red is made with a mind toward communal celebration. Dubbed “powwow-step,” it isn’t some staid brand of “world fusion” but true, speaker-rattling club music, featuring ululating vocal samples and tribal drums manipulated to fit the rhythms of dubstep, dancehall and moombahton. It’s a novel creation, and one that sounds surprisingly natural. But as Thomas points out, the traditions they’re connecting aren’t actually that far apart.

“We really see what we’re doing as a cultural continuum,” Thomas says, “taking some of the ideas of powwow as being a gathering place into the club, where we, as urban indigenous people, go to gather.”

Despite the party-forward ideology, A Tribe Called Red hasn’t skirted the political obligations foisted upon them. They’ve openly supported Idle No More, a movement to expand the rights of indigenous people in Canada, and helped pressure the Nepean Redskins, an Ottawa-area amateur football team, into changing their name. More personally, the group has issued statements urging fans not of First Nation descent to refrain from showing up at its gigs in headdresses and warpaint—a common scourge on the festival circuit. 

And while its music is inherently apolitical, the group has come to realize that its sheer existence is a statement in itself. Initially apprehensive of performing outside the continent, A Tribe Called Red eventually embraced its ambassador status, touring Europe with the intent of giving a face to North America’s modern indigenous people for an audience whose perceptions are still informed by John Wayne movies. But as its profile grows—getting co-signed by Diplo and long-listed for Canada’s prestigious Polaris Music Prize—the trio now finds itself assuming a position it’s less prepared for: that of role models. 

“That one’s got me a little more shook,” Thomas says, “but like everything else, I’m willing to meet it and man up to the responsibility of it all.”


SEE IT: A Tribe Called Red plays Holocene, 1001 SE Morrison St., with World Hood and Global Ruckus, on Thursday, April 3. 8 pm. $12 advance, $15 day of show. 21+.

 
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