It’s pow wow. It’s hip hop. Its two musical genres I don’t know anything about. However, I know what I like and I like Ottawa’s A Tribe Called Red. Coming out of Canada’s capital city’s club scene, A Tribe Called Red is creating music unlike anything ever heard before. When aboriginal DJ NDN and DJ Bear Witness united in 2008 the pair created The Electric Pow Wow – a night of electronic and hip-hop aimed directly at their own community. Adding DJ Shub to the mix in 2010, A Tribe Called Red have found a fan following across North America. Mixing traditional aboriginal drumming groups to modern club music, the group has created something they call Pow Wow Step, which has been finding its own niche in the world of electronic music, and has opened the doors to other communities and cultures discovering the beauty and power of pow wow music for the first time in an accessible form. As a result, A Tribe Called Red has not only been able to tie together their culture in music for a modern audience, but invite others from around the world into the party.
In May A Tribe Called Red released their second album, Nation II Nation, and have been touring it across North America and Europe. This summer A Tribe Called Red takes on the Canadian stretch of their tour with nine dates bringing them from the East to the West coasts. I had the opportunity to speak with Bear Wisdom just after the group’s return from Europe about the band, the new album and the unique music they make.
Sam Tweedle: I was sent a copy of your new release, Nation II Nation, and it’s unlike anything I’ve ever heard before. It’s coming from a place I don’t know much about. I want you to know that just in case I say something stupid that you don’t roll your eyes at me.
Bear Wisdom: No worries, man. It’s something that a lot of people don’t know about. Not many people know about the true history of the aboriginal people in North America, or the way things are now.
Sam: How did A Tribe Called Red come together?
Bear: Well we first came together in the fall of 2007 with the idea to showcase ourselves as native DJ’s, but also to throw a party for our community. The first Electric Pow Wow went off really well. There were a lot of native people that we didn’t know in the city. Ottawa has a very transient community in general because of the Universities and the [people] who work for the government. So the feedback we got from the people that were coming was that we created something that they felt comfortable enough with to come out.
Sam: But you must have had more people than just the aboriginal community coming out.
Bear: Yeah. Now, definitely. Even in the early days it wasn’t just the aboriginal communities [coming out to the shows], but that’s where our initial support was. We directed it towards our community. But one of the biggest surprises of this whole project was that once we started producing the music that it appealed to everybody. That was really surprising for us because [our music] isn’t the kind of music most people outside of our community are exposed to and you don’t expect them to identify with it.
Sam: I understand. I’ll admit when I was sent the description of what you do I didn’t think it’d be my kind of thing, but once I listened to your music I became totally mesmerized by it. Nation II Nation is your second album. Your first one was a free download over the internet. How did that work out, and how successful was it for you?
Bear: It was very successful. That’s something that I really have to attribute to our manager. He came along and started working with us and he told us to take all these songs that we had produced over a two year period and make them into a package. Something we could send around to people. So we made it free, and then we collected everyone’s e-mails [from our shows] and we put together a base list of people to write to.
Sam: How long did it take to put Nation II Nation together?
Bear: The majority of it was put together over a five to six month period.
Sam: Did you know DJ NDN and Shub before you started doing The Electric Pow Wow?
Bear: Well, before the Electric Pow Wow, DJ NDN and myself worked at the same club. A couple of years later, in 2009, we met DJ Shub for the first time. He was someone we didn’t know. We had found out that there was an Iroquois DJ playing a festival up here so we went and saw him, and it happened to be the same night as the Electric Pow Wow, so we got him to come out and play and we all really hit it off really well. A couple of months later he joined us.
Sam: Through the music that you guys put together, you use this incredible traditional aboriginal music. Where do those recordings come from?
Bear: We have a relationship with a record label called Tribal Spirit and they’ve opened up their catalogue to us of all these drum groups that they represent. We’ve been remixing whatever we want from the catalogue and they’ve released the album through them.
Sam: You guys just came back from Europe. How did the European audience take to you?
Bear: We had some really good shows over there. We played Great Escape in Brighton. That was an amazing show. We were really well received and were excited about it. We also played in London.
Sam: Now in Canada, even if someone isn’t a part of the aboriginal community it, isn’t a stretch to have been somewhat exposed to the music and culture, but that culture doesn’t even exist in Europe. You guys must have been almost alien to a British audience.
Bear: Oh yeah. Definitely, and the reasons we do what we do changes when we go over to Europe. We’re definitely not playing to an aboriginal crowd, although we had a few native people show up at our London show. It’s more about exposing something to people that have no knowledge of. It’s about showing them a little bit of what pow wow is.
Sam: How political do you guys get? Is your music political at all?
Bear: Yeah. It’s definitely political. It’s political in the fact that we are an aboriginal group. Our plan is to throw a really good party and make people dance, but when you talk about the aboriginal community it becomes political. Everything is connected – the political, the spiritual and everyday life.
Sam: You guys are going to be touring all over Canada this summer.
Bear: We are all over Canada. We’ve crossed the country seven times now. We’re touring until September and then we are taking some time out.
Sam: And do you get the same reception wherever you go?
Bear: These days things are nuts wherever we go. At this point we’ve created a pretty good following in Canada.
Sam: Well Nation II Nation is on the charts right now, isn’t it?
Bear: Yes it is. It’s on the college charts, and just the fact that we are showing up on the charts is great. We’ve been really fortunate.
I’ll be the first to admit that both musically and culturally, A Tribe Called Red is something I barely understand. However, Nation II Nation has quickly has been on constant loop and has been making up my summers oundtrack. Not only do I find Nation II Nation to be an interesting sound, but I find their music to be both high energy and spiritually soothing. A Tribe Called Red are musical pioneers in a path barely tread, despite having roots in an ancient music. They are pushing aboriginal music forward in ways that were unexplored before, and inspiring the next generation of musicians to embrace their culture and continue to create and express themselves in new and dynamic ways.
Watch for A Tribe Called Red when they come to your area:
06/27-30 Rothbury, MI – Electric Forest Festival
07/05 Halifax, NS – Jazz Fest
07/07 Calgary, AB – Commonwealth
07/10 Ottawa, ON – Ottawa Bluesfest
07/12-13 Winnipeg, MA – Winnipeg Folk Fest
07/19 Antigonish, NS – Evolve Festival
08/02-03 Montreal, QC – Osheaga Festival
08/09-10 Squamish, BC – Squamish Festival
08/16 Robson, BC – Robson Valley Festival
Also make sure to check out more music and info on a Tribe Called Red at http://atribecalledred.blogspot.ca/.