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Aboriginal Musicians Make Electric Pow-Wow Music for the Masses

A Tribe Called Red gives new life to traditional songs.

Deejay NDN (left) and Bear Witness.

A Tribe Called Red Album Release Party With Pho (of Bonjay)
The Drake Underground (1150 Queen Street West)
Thursday, May 3, doors at 11 p.m.
$10 in advance; limited quantities available at the door

“I see red people!” Dan General, also known as Deejay Shrub, shouts into a mic over a pulsing synth and the booming of a drum. Under flashing red strobes, a packed dance floor at an Ottawa club turns calm for a second, waiting for the bass to drop. When it does, everyone—aboriginals and non-aboriginals alike—goes wild.

Not many remix artists will mess with a traditional pow-wow track, but for Ottawa-based aboriginal electronic music group A Tribe Called Red (ATCR)—who are hosting an album-release party at the Drake Underground tonight—pow-wow music is a natural fit. Mixing it with elements of hip-hop, dancehall, and electro-dance reflects the world they live in. “What we’re trying do with A Tribe Called Red,” says Bear Witness, one of the group’s deejays, “is take those traditional aspects of being aboriginal and bring them into our urban life.”

The three-member crew’s self-titled debut album, released last month, is a showcase of cross-cultural production: Powerful drum textures and traditional falsetto singing coalesce with party-ready urban rhythms and beat-drops.

A Tribe Called Red started off hosting a small party in Ottawa, called Electric Pow Wow, that eventually attracted an audience consisting of equal parts aboriginal people and every other kind of ethnicity you might find in a Canadian city. “We started it to show the native community that we were doing something cool and that was it,” says Ian Campeau, a member of the group, who also goes by Deejay NDN. No longer just a showcase for aboriginal deejay talent, the event has grown. So has ACTR: they now play in major cities, as well as in aboriginal communities.

When they perform live, the group spins party music of all genres, with the night climaxing around a set of their original material. Songs like “Red Skin Girl” and “Electric Pow Wow Drum” bring everyone to the floor. It can be a visceral thing. There’s a moment when, if you look around, you see a bunch of white people and aboriginals, packed together in a dark club, with alcohol on their breath, pheromones flowing, and the big drum pounding like a heartbeat.

And everyone is relaxed, comfortable in their own skin, dancing to pow-wow music.

When Bear Witness talks about bringing pow-wow music to the the masses, he says, “Crossover with the traditional has always been a hard thing to do. It has not been an easy place to go.” Sometimes racial barriers are easier to feel than to explain. Likewise with music that breaks those barriers. If you ask Bear Witness why Electric Pow Wow has been such a success, he’ll answer:

“I think it has something to do with starting from a community that was solid. We made a comfortable place for our community and our community made a comfortable place for everyone else.”

With their self-titled release garnering widespread praise, and with international tour dates booked, A Tribe Called Red seems poised to introduce pow-wow music to the mainstream.

Photos by Paul Galipeau.


  • Angela

    I love a Tribe Called Red, but I am not a fan of this article. One of the artists mentions breaking down barriers but your oversimplification of “white and aboriginals” does nothing to help the case. The divide between identities is not as simple as that. Also the characterization of the crowd: “with alcohol on their breath, pheromones flowing, and the big drum pounding like a heartbeat…” is reminiscent of the imagery used to cast Aboriginal peoples as savage and close to nature. I have also been told that the drum is said to represent the heartbeat of the earth, but the picture painted seems to fall into the old stereotypes.

    • Ted

      Hey Angela, you highlight an important point, and something I was worried about about when I wrote this. The depiction of alcohol and pheremones applies to the entire crowd (of all ethnicities) and is a reality of any dance club. But given the bad stereotypes that already exist, I should have been more careful with this.

      And as for oversimplifying it to white an aboriginal, there is a brutal and ongoing history of racism towards aboriginals, specifically by white people, and the fact that ATCR break this specific racial barrier is important to highlight because it is the most difficult and important one for society to deal with. I totally agree that ATCR moves us farther away from this type of over-simplistic duality, but I feel I had acknowledge it in order to show how ATCR are helping us move past it.

      • Anonymous

        I really don’t see the problem. If we’re going to break barriers we have to be inclusive to our environments and the people around us. It’s a club. The context explains itself and IMHO the “white guilt” of PC statements like the above actually perpetuate these stereotypes more.

  • CBC Rocks

    It’s old stuff, but if you want a listen:

  • Anonymous

    “Make Electric Pow-Wow Music”

    That doesn’t even make sense. Typical doboscobes…

    • E B

      The night they put on is called Electric Pow-Wow and that is what’s being referenced in the title.

      • Anonymous

        Yea I know, I can read. As an Aboriginal, it doesn’t make sense.