Every summer all across North America, Native Americans get together for powwows. At these intertribal social gatherings they sing, dance, discuss, and celebrate their traditions and their survival.
Every weekend in cities across the land, youth assemble in nightclubs for their own intertribal communion. Electronic music, built of massive bass drops and frenetic loops, laced with rhythms from around the world, paces their celebrations.
In cities like Ottawa, where the DJ collective A Tribe Called Red came together, many urban youth trace and proudly claim Native roots.
A Tribe Called Red
In retrospect, then, the Electric Pow Wow club concept was perhaps inevitable.
But until DJ NDN and DJ Bear Witness – two-thirds of ATCR’s lineup – came up with the idea in 2008, a Native American (or First Nations, to use the Canadian term) electronic club night had yet to be invented.
And the idea of a Native group making original dance music, remixing powwow drums and chants, touring as far as Europe and Australia, delivering “Pow Wow Step” to Native, non-Native, and mixed crowds alike, was beyond the trio’s aspirations.
ATCR, which visits the Middle East Upstairs on June 2, began with a one-off party, says DJ Bear Witness, 35, a member of the Six Nations Band of the Cayuga. (DJ Shub is from the same community; DJ NDN, né Ian Campeau, is Nipissing Ojibwe).
“There were a few Native DJs in Ottawa, but it was the first time we came together,” Bear Witness says on the phone. “We advertised at the Aboriginal student unions at the universities. It was crazy. We sold out, and it was full of people we didn’t recognize.”
Native youth who hadn’t felt comfortable on the scene came out to party. As the event’s reputation grew, non-Natives began to attend. But when Natives took the center of the floor, executing traditional moves to the powwow drum and vocal samples, the space was clearly theirs.
“It turns out that if you want to throw a party for Aboriginal people, it’s inherently political,” Bear Witness says. “But we didn’t set out to make a statement.”
ATCR’s tracks are first and foremost for dancing: well-honed creations that live on the dubstep-moombahton-trap spectrum of today’s club sound. They’ve earned notice on connoisseur blogs and approving tweets by the influential producer Diplo.
But their distinct cultural agenda is clear, reinforced with compelling visual effects, and punctuated by the occasional pointed reference to events.
One song, “Woodcarver,” layers sound from a police radio and a newscast, addressing a Seattle incident in which police shot a Native woodcarver who was walking with his knife. “Red Skin Girl,” features the Northern Cree traditional group singing a chorus in English, praising a Native woman’s beauty.
Most ATCR tracks showcase powwow drums and chants that non-Natives may not understand, but can appreciate. The ululations of the Black Bear group, for example, complement the spare, haunting sound of “The Road” — a song dedicated to Idle No More, the First Nations cultural and political movement gaining momentum in Canada.
The group’s videos and concert projections draw on the bottomless reservoir of Native images in popular culture. They span sports team mascots, the noble-savage portraits of photographer Edward Curtis, bizarre trends like the recent vogue of “hipsters with headdresses” — and, of course, Hollywood.
“I have a huge collection of westerns,” says Bear Witness, who is also the group’s video artist. “I don’t out-and-out hate those movies.”
Instead, he mines and mashes up the material in search of new meanings. “I’m reclaiming and decolonizing these Aboriginal images,” he says.
“Tribe is part of a vanguard of artists in all expressions who are tearing down the Edward Curtis image of what it means to be an Indian,” say Robert and Joywind Todd, whose cooperative label Tribal Spirit hosts a dozen drum groups.
“Their sound is a totally unique sound built from the roots of powwow music. They are bringing powwow songs to the wider, non-Native audience, and reminding them that we are still here.”
Recently, ATCR partnered with the label to remix tracks by these groups, and possibly record or perform with some of them.
“It’s an amazing agreement,” says Bear Witness. It opens new horizons: Some of the powwow groups, for instance, have their own hip-hop MCs. Other collaborations are in the works — one, for instance, with the prominent Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq.
Not all Native culture is suitable for remixing and playing in a club, of course.
“It’s a good thing that we’re using social powwow songs,” Bear Witness says, as opposed to more explicitly sacred material. “There are some things that couldn’t be used. But you generally can’t record those things anyway.”
Indeed, far from a suspicion on the part of traditionalists, Bear Witness says the group has mostly heard encouragement to serve as ambassadors.
“Part of our success is that we have a very mixed audience. First we got support from the Aboriginal community and then it went beyond it. When we went to Europe we got all these messages from the community, saying: ‘Teach them who we are.’ ”