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culture

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.

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