Among the best acts to catch this spring concert season is A Tribe Called Red, a trio of aboriginal DJ-producers from Canada whose specialty is a kinetic mix of electronic dance music and traditional Native American singing and drumming dubbed "Pow Wow Step." The group regularly incorporates visuals into their show that splice and deconstruct pop-culture references to Native Americans in order to reclaim the images and draw attention to the often-racist depictions. Their 17-city stateside tour begins on March 12 in Denver, and includes stops at SXSW in Austin, No Jazz Fest in New Orleans and Movement Festival in Detroit.
I recently saw Tribe one frigid January night in New York City's East Village, where they brought a bit of their world to the annual global music showcase known as globalFEST. Throughout their set, deejays NDN, Shub and Bear Witness scratched and looped dancehall, dubstep and moombahton into songs like Northern Cree's "Red-Skin Girl" and "Cherokee People, Cherokee Pride" by Paul Revere & The Raiders. They were accompanied by friends Rhonda and Winter Doxtator, a mother-daughter duo that contributed traditional Native American vocals and a hoop dance in native regalia. The globalFEST performance seamlessly wedded contemporary and traditional elements, and it embodied Tribe's mission: to express who aboriginal people are today.
Tribe emerged from a monthly party organized by members Ian "DJ NDN" Campeau, 31, an Ojibway from Nipissing First Nation, and Bear Witness, 35, from Six Nations reserve, in their hometown, Ottawa. The goal of their "Electric Pow Wow" gathering was to create a space to showcase urban Native talent and culture. In 2009, hip-hop producer and turntable battling champ Dan "DJ Shub" General, 31, also from Six Nations reserve, was invited to perform at one party. He joined DJ NDN and Bear Witness in Tribe soon after.
Over the past few years, the act has gained wider popularity in and out of Canada. In 2012, its self-titled full-length debut was long-listed for the prestigious Polaris Music Prize and landed on the Washington Post year-end Best Of list.
I caught up with A Tribe Called Red the day after their New York show and talked to them about their music, the Native-rights movement Idle No More and what's next for them.
Monika Fabian: What's your music-making process like?
DJ NDN: Dan knows how to work the programming because he's been producing hip-hop for so long, so we sit down around him and we all kind of be like, "Alright, change this, do this. Alright that doesn't sound so good, try this." So we all have a hand in producing the track, but he knows the ins and outs. DJ Shub: It's a lot easier than back when I was doing it by myself [in the beginning]. It's like I have two minds talking to me at the same time.