Arts & Culture

Electric Powwow

A Tribe Called Red creates the urban Aboriginal soundtrack

Photograph by Pat Bolduc
Pat Bolduc Old beat, new drums From left, DJs Bear Witness, Shub, and NDN near the ByWard Market in Ottawa.

As the July sun sets over the Ottawa River, a crowd assembles at the bottom of a slope behind the Canadian War Museum. It’s Bluesfest, the biggest annual music event in the capital, and the energy is palpable. One of the evening’s headlining acts is A Tribe Called Red, a trio of Indigenous DJs based in Ottawa. Over the past five years, ATCR has crafted a sound that is utterly modern and unique: traditional powwow songs—age-old chants sung around a big drum—mixed with contemporary electronic dance music.

Tonight the venue seems especially symbolic. Named Kitchisippi, or “big river,” by the Algonquin people, the Ottawa River served as a vital trade route long before Samuel de Champlain travelled it in search of a passage to the Orient. Just downstream is Victoria Island, a sacred traditional Algonquin gathering site, and a little farther along, at Nepean Point, stands a statue of Champlain himself, gesturing west in a pose of conquest. Here at Bluesfest, descendants from those founding cultures of the country known as Canada will join others in a harmonious clash.

As technicians test the lights, Johnny Armstrong stands close to the stage in a circle with four friends. Like most groups of urban Indigenous people, they represent a mishmash of nations: Algonquin, Anishinabe, and Cree. Armstrong, a thirty-four-year-old Anishinabe, has lived in Ottawa for most of his life.

“If you’re an urban Native,” he says, “you feel like you’re alone. When you see someone else, it’s like, ‘Oh, there’s another one!’ ” He gestures to a woman in the circle, and everyone laughs. Then he points to the stage, his brown braid hanging down his back, swinging back and forth. “They united that. They understand the urban environment and the rez environment. They’re melding those two together, and that’s fucking cool.”

The relevance and potency of ATCR’s music extends beyond a simple fusion of old and new. Aboriginal people are the fastest-growing demographic in the country, and First Nations, Inuit, and Metis youth are increasingly moving to urban centres for school or work. This is not a mass migration from specific cultural groups. Instead, they trickle in from all corners of the country, resulting in diverse, tightly knit, culturally rich cliques like Armstrong and his friends.

Meanwhile, in the past year, the Idle No More movement has unified groups with the resolve to protect their land, cultures, and treaty rights, while educating other Canadians about their plight. The demographic shift, along with this modern political force, is embodied in ATCR’s music, art, and activism: the DJ collective is creating the soundtrack for the modern urban Indigenous experience.

Near Armstrong and his friends, I bump into Pauline Mousseau, a Mi’kmaq with roots in Millbrook First Nation in Nova Scotia, who has lived most of her life in Ottawa. I strike up a conversation with her about the racially mixed crowd. She tells me she is a regular at ATCR’s monthly Electric Pow Wow parties at Babylon Nightclub downtown. “It’s a way to connect with my Nativeness,” she says. She has never experienced music like this before. “It’s completely young, but it’s something my mom would have liked, too. My grandmother would have appreciated it.”

Eventually, dusk gives way to night. DJs NDN, Shub, and Bear Witness saunter onstage and take their places behind their laptops and decks. Shub shouts out to the hometown crowd and opens with an unreleased track, a traditional “sneak-up” composition. On the powwow circuit, a sneak-up often starts with a quick basic beat, and the dancers take small, rapid steps low to the ground—as if sneaking up on prey. The songs then build to a loud, fast chorus, urging the dancers into a frenzy. Here it works the same, but instead of powwow regalia, bare shoulders and baseball caps bob up and down while bangled arms are thrown upward.

Just as the crowd, now 2,000 strong, begins to lose itself in the music, the DJs weave seamlessly into “Bread and Cheese,” the hypnotic opening track of their critically acclaimed second album, Nation II Nation, released this past May. Vocal tracks from a song by Quebec drum group Black Bear Singers are laid on a fluctuating bed of Latin-like beats. Crafting this type of track can be complicated. It’s tricky to match the rhythm of an ancient a cappella vocal melody with modern, bass-heavy beats. The straightforward drumbeats of powwow music lend themselves more readily to remixing. (In the wider electronic music scene, ATCR is commonly placed in the dubstep category because of its slower, bass-driven beats.) The sound of the big drum and modern beat production software serve the same purpose: to shake you to your core and make you move.

Onstage, NDN, Shub, and Bear Witness dance as enthusiastically as their fans. This homecoming show is special. The three men are silhouetted against a massive video screen showing scenes of stereotypical “Indian” imagery from popular culture, such as silent movie clips of white actors in loincloths and feathered headbands stomping around a fire. The video loops are Bear’s brainchild: he wants to confront audiences on the dance floor, when they least expect it, and challenge their notions of what “Indians” look like. The images are not just cinematic relics, though. Cartoonish representations persist: take Johnny Depp’s controversial portrayal of Tonto in the recent remake of The Lone Ranger, for example.

To this point, Shub takes a mike to hype the crowd. Introducing the track “Braves,” he says, “This song is dedicated to all the racist sports team names out there today. That’s just messed up.” The crowd roars in agreement. ATCR has spoken often about offensive names and images in sports. NDN has spearheaded a campaign called #ChangeTheName to persuade an Ottawa junior football club called the Nepean Redskins to adopt a new moniker (the club eventually agreed to do so).

Near the end of the show, NDN’s two young daughters and Shub’s son join them onstage, dancing on the periphery while fans take pictures. This heartwarming scene shows the other side of the group’s fierce, provocative political message: affection, joy, and an emphasis on positive images of Indigenous life. They close their set with “The Road,” a song they put out in conjunction with Idle No More. It’s an ambient, emotive track, with a beat that is calm and constant, then suddenly explosive, much like the movement itself. When the song ends, the crowd disperses, but a handful of young fans linger in awe.

A couple of weeks after the Bluesfest show, Bear and Dan General (Shub) join Ian Campeau (NDN), his wife, and their daughters on Victoria Island. The surrounding area, known as Asinabka in Algonquin, is home to a sizeable park that serves as an Indigenous cultural centre. Its teepees and wooden lodges function as traditional venues, and the tall wooden enclosure around it offers a refuge from urban tensions.

It’s a rare day off. Earlier in the summer, ATCR made the Polaris Music Prize short list for best Canadian album of the year. The group is the first Aboriginal act to reach the final round of balloting (in 2012, ATCR’s eponymous debut album made the long list). The DJs have just finished a leg of tour dates, and the next day they leave for another week of performances across Canada and the United States.

Bear and Campeau, Iroquois (Cayuga) and Anishinabe (Ojibway) respectively, met in 2006 at an Ottawa lounge. They were two of just a few Native DJs in the city, and they bonded over their love for electronic music. Young Indigenous people were arriving in the city from nearby communities, and from as far away as Nunavut, but Ottawa’s club scene offered nothing for them, so in 2007 Bear and Campeau started the Electric Pow Wow parties.

At the time, General was living in Fort Erie, Ontario, near Niagara Falls. A renowned battle DJ, he had won international competitions for mixing, scratching, and performing other tricks. He had heard hype about the Electric Pow Wows, and in the summer of 2008 he went to one of the parties. He felt so inspired that he created a track that has since become “Electric Pow Wow Drum,” an ATCR staple. He emailed it to Campeau, and after a quick conference call he officially became part of the group. General moved his family to Ottawa, and the newly formed collective experimented with making more of its own music.

“When we started this, we just wanted to throw a party. That’s it. And then it took us all over the world,” says Campeau. “We smashed any ceiling and any expectations we had for A Tribe Called Red and for what we do a long time ago.”

For Nation II Nation, they worked with drum groups on the Tribal Spirit record label, an independent Quebec company that makes drums and distributes powwow albums. ATCR took the isolated vocal tracks and added modern elements from dubstep, moombahton, and other electronic genres. On paper, it’s a wild departure from the original spirit of the songs, but the trio consulted with the musicians to remix their work in a respectful way.

The album represents one of the first forays into popular electronic music by Indigenous artists. Rock, country, and rap especially have long been popular genres on the rez, and for just as long such artists as legendary folksinger Buffy Sainte-Marie and Winnipeg rock band Eagle and Hawk have been injecting traditional elements into their music. But electronic music is still relatively new, and it’s evolving alongside contemporary urban Native culture, which is why an album like Nation II Nation resonates so deeply and widely. Bear calls it “a window into what our experience is as urban Aboriginal people.”

There has been criticism, however, and fears about cultural exploitation and misinterpretation. Some powwow musicians don’t believe sacred honour songs should be separated from the traditional drum, considered by many to be the heartbeat of Mother Earth. Even a fan like Pauline Mousseau feels a little uneasy about hearing powwow vocals at concert venues and in nightclubs. “I wonder if it’s a good thing, sometimes,” she says. “Some things should be kept sacred, but how else would others know about it? ” There are also concerns about playing traditional music in venues where alcohol is served; it is forbidden at powwows.

Campeau, a traditional drummer growing up, recognizes these concerns. “We got those songs from the drummers,” he says. “They were asked. Everybody knew exactly what was happening, and they knew we were gonna remix it, and they knew it was gonna be played in club settings, so the ones who wrote the songs are okay with it—but there is that very fine line, for sure.”

Another tension lies within the audience. As ATCR’s popularity grew, non-Native people began to show up at gigs in faux headdresses and war paint, which the DJs and many in the crowd viewed as a disrespectful caricature. At some festivals this past summer, organizers posted signs warning that fake headdresses would be confiscated. “They wanted to make a safe and comfortable space,” says Bear, “for the same reason we made the Electric Pow Wow party in the first place.”

ATCR remains undaunted. They want diverse groups to come to their shows and connect with one another. More importantly, they want to display their culture and identity proudly. After centuries of colonial hardship endured by First Nations, Inuit, and Metis people, ATCR sees a renaissance emerging through the arts. With each show come new opportunities to build relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, even if controversies and debates arise.

“There’s still a ways to go,” Campeau says. “But conversations are happening, and that’s the most important thing, because they weren’t happening before.”

This appeared in the December 2013 issue.

Waubgeshig Rice published Midnight Sweatlodge, a short story collection, in 2011. He is now finishing his first novel.