Powwow Music Meets Electronica
The buzz over Ottawa’s A Tribe Called Red is growing to a roar
The three Ottawa men who form A Tribe Called Red presided over a dance floor that pulsed with energy at Babylon last Saturday. The 2013 edition of their regular monthly party, Electric Pow Wow, kicked off the day after Canada’s First Nations chiefs met with the Prime Minister and other federal officials. That landmark occasion turned the night into a celebration of the Idle No More movement, highlighted by a guest appearance by Winnipeg rapper/broadcaster Wab Kinew, who was in town for the rallies.
On stage, an artist painted a graffiti wall emblazoned with the three-word slogan, while the Tribe deejays, NDN, Shub and Bear Witness, constructed the soundtrack, anchoring it with tracks that mash samples of powwow drumming and singing with electronic dance rhythms. The crowd, mostly native and twenty-something, loved it, packing the dance floor and beaming as they moved to the beat. Outside the bar, a lineup snaked down Bank Street.
It didn’t take long for Kinew and another aboriginal artist, Lorenzo, to generate sparks with a handful of politically charged hip-hop tracks. “When I say Idle,” declared Kinew, initiating the classic call-and-response technique, “You say, ‘No more’ “. One song wove native rights into Neil Young’s Heart of Gold, while another called on the nations to diss cowboy actor John Wayne. (To see a video of this show find this story at ottawacitizen.com/arts).
Although Kinew revved things up as the night’s special guest, the heart of the event belonged to A Tribe Called Red, one of the fastest rising new groups in the country. Their full-length debut album, released last year as a free download, surprised everyone when it was long-listed for Canada’s prestigious Polaris Prize. By year’s end, the Washington Post had declared it one of the year’s top 10, CBC Music named it the aboriginal album of the year and it was downloaded more than 25,000 times. What’s more, it led to touring in North America and Europe, and earned bookings at major festivals. A Juno nomination seems almost certain.
At Electric Pow Wow on Saturday, the pressures of the industry seemed far off, despite the fact that they had to be on a plane to New York City the next morning to make it to a high-profile gig. Bottles of water and Red Bull at hand, the deejays casually checked their phones as they operated the decks, welcoming friends to the stage to dance and hang out. When they’re touring, they follow a more structured set, but at Electric Pow Wow, the vibe is relaxed.
“Here we do whatever we want,” says Bear, a burly 35-year-old video artist. “We still play our songs, but we play the music we want to hear. I think it really shows at our Ottawa shows that we’re having fun.”
“We play music for a living,” adds Ian Campeau, a 31-year-old who goes by DJ NDN. “How could we not have fun?”
Indeed. Campeau, a former bouncer at Barrymore’s who learned to deejay at the club’s ’90s night, and Bear, a veteran dance-hall deejay, founded Electric Pow Wow more than five years ago, first as a bi-monthly event patterned after the ethnic-themed parties held by their Korean and Southeast Asian friends. The Pow Wow was a big success from the start, attracting throngs of young native people.
The deejays noticed how the crowd reacted to any hint of powwow music, and began creating tracks laced with samples of First Nations singing and drumming. “We’d play that and the crowd would go crazy,” recalls Campeau. “Once we started mashing up powwow with dubstep and contemporary club stuff, that’s when A Tribe Called Red started. We had our party and made music to fit it.”
The third member of the trio, Dan General, aka DJ Shub, was a champion battle deejay and hip-hop producer who made the trek to Ottawa from Fort Erie to be a guest at Electric Pow Wow. “I came up and saw what they were doing and got hooked right away,” says the 31-year-old. “I went home and just started making tracks.”
Two years ago, General quit his full-time factory job and moved his wife and young son to Ottawa to devote his energy to A Tribe Called Red. “Everybody definitely saw that there was something happening and I had to be here for it,” General says.
Their first breakthrough came towards the end of 2010, when Campeau sent a couple of tracks to the respected American deejay Diplo, who posted them on his blog. A big fan of Diplo’s, Campeau met the deejay when he was in town for shows with Ottawa’s EDM veterans, Jokers of the Scene. Bolstered by Diplo’s support, and the social media buzz over the track Electric Pow Wow Drum, Tribe was inspired to keep making music, often with video accompaniment.
The next step was attracting the attention of Guilllaume Decouflet, a French expat in Toronto and a key figure behind the global electronic music blog/label Masalacism. When he became the trio’s manager, he advised them to collect their tracks, come up with artwork and release them as an album, but make it available as a free download. That’s when the buzz turned into a roar, fueled by the increasing popularity of electronic dance music and a fascination with native culture.
“We’ve totally shattered any expectations we had for this project,” says Campeau. “It’s pretty crazy.”
“It pays to get your album out there for free,”added General.
Along the way, the deejays strive to represent their culture in a positive way. At a show in England last fall, they were dismayed by the number of non-aboriginal fans sporting the latest misguided fashion trend: hipster headdresses and war paint. “It just took a conversation to say, ‘Guys, that’s not really cool,”says Campeau. “Would you put on blackface for a reggae show? They went, ‘Sorry’ and washed their faces off. It just took that second”he snaps his finger-”for them to get it.”
Campeau was also the person behind last summer’s campaign for Barrhaven’s minor football league, Nepean Redskins, to change its name. Although the name remains, he’s happy that he got people talking about the issue, and made at least some aware of the racist implications. The group revisits the issue in a powerful new remix of the track, Braves.
“It’s a statement about the fact that there are teams using completely racial slurs and inappropriate behaviour to promote sports,” says Campeau, noting that he never thought about it much until he became a father and saw how a team named Redskins (or Braves or Chiefs or Indians) would be hard to explain to his two little girls. “It’s time to take a look at it, and ask yourself, ‘Why is it only aboriginal people who are being used like this?’ No other race is being used like this.”
An Ojibway from the Nipissing First Nation, Campeau went to school in Orleans, where the other kids called him Chief. As a youth, he was a drummer on the powwow trail, and later played drums for the Montreal punk band Ripcordz. Bear’s only musical experience comes from being a deejay for almost two decades, while General played guitar in various bands before he started producing hiphop. Both Bear and General hail from the Six Nations reserve in Southern Ontario.
Part of their goal as a group is to give a voice to the urban aboriginal experience in Canada, but they’re also determined to deconstruct native stereotypes. In the video for their remix of Scalp Dem, for example, they’ve taken a song by a Jamaican dance-hall deejay, Super Cat, and matched it with vintage footage of white dancers in Indian garb. They call the process ‘indigenizing’.
“It’s an act of decolonizing the ideas and misconceptions of aboriginal people,” says Bear. “We’ve been portrayed through that lens for so long, now we’re taking the opportunity to control that image. There’s a long history of aboriginal people not being able to write our own history or portray our own image, so it’s all misconceptions. It’s never coming from us. We’re moving into a time now where we’re beginning to take control of our image. Once you start taking it apart and re-purposing it, you take the negativity out.”
Meanwhile, the rise to fame continues. A new EP came out last month, quickly earning a positive mention in the New York Times. The newspaper also reviewed Tribe’s Jan. 13 appearance in New York City, describing them as “the computer-wielding trio that meshes the pounding beats and cutting changes of powwow music with the pounding beats, bruising bass lines and sonic zingers of international dance music and does it with muscle and good timing.”
Their calendar is filling up, too. Early highlights of the 2013 tour schedule include a showcase at the South by Southwest Music Festival, an appearance at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and, in Ottawa, a headlining set at Winterlude on Feb. 1. Another European tour is booked for spring, and two new albums are in the works, including one that will have major-label distribution.
Back at Babylon, ground zero for what’s been dubbed powwow step, the crowd was blissfully unaware of its role in shaping the hottest new subgenre of electronic dance music. To them, it’s the sound of a fun Saturday night. Across North America, however, the beat is connecting with a generation of young aboriginal people.
“It was bound to happen,” says Campeau. “We’re not even the first people to do it. We’re just the first to be recognized.”
“It was on the tip of everybody’s tongue,” adds Bear. “It was something ready to happen. I don’t know if people were ready to have powwow music remixed 10 or 15 years ago. We came along at the right moment.”