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[courtesy A Tribe Called Red - copyright www.patbolduc.com]
[courtesy A Tribe Called Red - copyright www.patbolduc.com]

Beats & politics at A Tribe Called Red's 'Electric Pow Wow'

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Two weeks from tonight, one of ten artists will win Canada's biggest music award, the Polaris Prize. Previous winners include world-renowned acts Feist, Carabou and Arcade Fire.

One of the bands nominated on the Polaris short list is Native American DJ collective A Tribe Called Red. The three DJs are from Ottawa. They're transforming traditional aboriginal music, and in the process, building one of the hottest club nights in the city.

A Tribe Called Red mixes electronic dubstep beats with pow wow singing and drumming, and a big dose of politics. David Sommerstein profiled the group last year. Here's that story.

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It’s the second Saturday of the month, Electric Pow Wow night, at Ottawa’s trendy Babylon club.  It’s pouring outside, but the line to get in snakes down the block.

[ambient sound of dubstepp-y music playing]

Inside, A Tribe Called Red’s three DJs – NDN, Bear Witness, and Shub – are on stage warming up the crowd with a bumpin mix of dancehall and hip hop.

A Tribe Called Red moving the dance floor at the Electric Pow Wow in  Ottawa.  Photo by David Sommerstein.
A Tribe Called Red moving the dance floor at the Electric Pow Wow in Ottawa. Photo by David Sommerstein.
Brittany Jones and Marissa Martin sip cocktails in a cozy booth.  They’re both native – Chippewa and Mi’kmaq, respectively.  They say the Electric Pow Wow is special for aboriginal people, particularly for students far from their homes and tribes.

MARTIN: Cause when you’re going to a regular club, you’re not really represented.

JONES: You know that coming here, you’re going to see a lot of aboriginal people, so it makes it a sense of comfort, family, friends.  You know you’re going to see people that you know.

But the best part, they say, is when the pow wow beats come on.

It’s really a new genre of music.  It’s a party pow wow!

A Tribe Called Red calls it “pow wow step”, and sure enough, the first mix of it they play, people jam the dance floor.

music: ATCR's “Electric Pow Wow Drum”

It’s so loud, the singing so powerful, the bass so deep and wobbly, the fabric on your clothes actually vibrates.  It’s dizzying.

music: “Electric Pow Wow Drum”

So if you’re not quite sure what a pow wow is…let’s go to one.

[Sound of Bear Creek pow wow singers.]

This is the group Bear Creek, singing at the Akwesasne Mohawk pow wow last summer.  Pow wows are a cultural gatherings that bring together native tribes across the Americas.  Hundreds are held each year.  Bands drum and sing.  Dancers in colorful costumes compete for prizes.

Bear Creek singer Gabe Gaudette says A Tribe Called Red is drawing praise in the pow wow scene.  He says they’re respecting the music and moving it ahead.

It’s cool because I’ve never heard our specific music done in that way.  I just really like what they do.

Marissa Martin and Brittany Jones loving the pow wow beats at the Electric Pow Wow.  Photo by David Sommerstein.
Marissa Martin and Brittany Jones loving the pow wow beats at the Electric Pow Wow. Photo by David Sommerstein.
A Tribe Called Red’s Ian Compeau – DJ NDN – sang in a pow wow group when he was a kid in the Nippising First Nation, north of Toronto.  He says many young aboriginal people bring that shared experience to the Electric Pow Wow.

It’s a place where you meet people.  It’s a place where you dance.  It’s a place where you share songs.  It’s the same as a pow wow.  It just so happens that it’s in an urban setting and a modern setting, it takes place in a club.

A Tribe Called Red’s name pivots off hip hop pioneers, A Tribe Called Quest.  Compeau says the color red represents indigenous populations on the traditional medicine wheel.

The band started when Compeau and Bear Witness were DJ-ing in the same club about five years ago.

My East Indian friends would have their “Brown Parties” – in quotes – “Brown parties” is what they’d call it.  There was Korean parties.  There were all these culturally significant parties they’d have.  I realized that they really didn’t have any representation like that for the aboriginal population in the city, so we just kinda wanted to throw one for that.

Compeau took a loop from a pow wow song.  Bear Witness put a beat under it.  That’s when, Bear Witness says, they tapped into cultural identity and power, and it all clicked.

It was the reaction from the aboriginal people in the crowd, where they’d take over the dance floor.  This is us now.  It was like, we’re gonna push everybody back and take over that space, which is something you don’t see come out of the aboriginal community enough.

music: ATCR's “Look At This”

A Tribe Called Red roots its music in politics.  Bear Witness says given the history of native people in the Americas, it’s impossible not to.

When everything has been done to break down our communities and extinguish us as a people, that we’re still here and doing what we’re doing, that’s already political.

Those politics come out sharpest in videos Bear Witness produces and projects at some shows.  One called “NDNs in All Directions” mashes up a Jamaican dancehall tune called “Scalp Dem” with an old British TV variety show.  Compeau says the images show white people dancing in stereotypical Indian costumes.

So there’s nothing really aboriginal about it, except we’re remixing it.  Now we’re decolonizing these images and these songs and we’re taking that power back ourselves.

music: ATCR's “NDNs in All Directions”

Two years ago, Compeau and Bear Witness brought on Dan General aka DJ Shub, a two-time Canadian turntable battle champion, and A Tribe Called Red has soared from there. 

Dubstep king Diplo blogged about them.  MTV's been interested.  They’ve gathered their mixes into a album they're giving away on their website. 

And they want to spread the Electric Pow Wows across Canada, continuing the process of carrying a cultural anchor into the DJ era.

music: ATCR's “MoombahWow”

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