Interview: A Tribe Called Red


A Tribe Called Red is a trio of Canadian DJs from Ottawa. Since 2008 they have been creating their own electronic sub-genere, electric pow wow, and are quickly emerging as a musical and political force. KGNU caught up with the members of the group, Bear Witness, DJ NDN, and Canadian DMC champ, DJ Shub by phone from Bear’s home in Ottawa.

The original dance party gets an update. Electric Pow Wow takes over the planet.

KGNU: We’d like to ask you about social media. You released your first album free online and there’s been a great deal of coordination of the Idle No More movement through the Internet. What has been the impact of social media for A Tribe Called Red and for aboriginal people?

DJ NDN: For A Tribe Called Red alone it’s been essential, having internet access and being able to get our music out there for free, to push the music on Twitter. Our big break came from a producer named Diplo blogging about us. So that kind of goes to show the scale and the power of social media right now, and just the Internet in general. As far as being First Nations, the Internet kind of leveled the playing field for a lot of the civil rights movements that are happening right now. You know, where First Nations were put on reserves, especially out here on the east coast, specifically out of walking distance of any city scape. So, unlike the African American civil rights movement in the ’60s in the United States, where there was constant friction happening in the streets in the cities, for us it was different because we were ‘out of sight, out of mind’ on reserves.

So, now we’re able to have these conversations and we’re able to have the arguments and have the friction that needs to happen to spark our civil rights movement on Twitter and on Facebook and that sort of thing. And with Idle No More being able to put together flash mob Round Dances within 40 minutes and have 3,000 people show up is very very powerful. That’s something we’ve never really had before. At the same time, we’re also able to publish our own views on what’s happening for real on reserve life. You know? Attawapiskat? that whole scandal came out of facebook where a tiny local newspaper wrote about Attawapiskat and its deplorable living conditions 2 years ago, and it caught like wildfire on facebook so CBC (The Canadian Broadcast Corporation) couldn’t deny it anymore, and it kind of took off from there.

Yeah, so for First Nations people, it’s essential right now.

KGNU: Talk about the Electric Pow Wow club night at Babylon, and maybe you could describe that for folks who are unfamiliar, but also, you’re getting pretty well known. You’re the first electronic artists to perform at Jazz Fest, you’ve played in Europe, the US, and it seems like there?s a parallel to Fela Kuti and his famous performances at The Shrine in Lagos, Nigeria. As you have gone on to worldwide acclaim, how is the original club night holding up?

Bear Witness: The club night was essential to building A Tribe Called Red. We really grew out of the Electric Pow Wow party, and getting that kind of support from our community first was really important to us. We made this music and we created this night for the aboriginal community, but the big surprise was that everybody felt it and everybody loved it just the same. So very quickly we were able to move out beyond the aboriginal community and into just music in general.

KGNU: Ian, you’ve talked about growing up as a drummer and being a part of the Ojibwe community and how that has helped guide your knowledge of what songs are appropriate to work with in transformation to electronic tracks, avoiding honor songs or veteran songs, and focusing more on dance songs and jingle dress songs. So, you have that respect and that sensitivity, but what kind of reaction do you get from older generations?

DJ NDN: Fantastic! Everything has been really positive. We’ve had comments and tweets about how inter-generational our music is. A 30 year old person who’s tweeting will talk about how their daughter is dancing to our music at the same time as their grandparents. So it’s reaching people and families across multiple generations in a positive way. From what I hear anyways.

KGNU: You’ve also talked about the importance of aboriginal people controlling their own image, because you’ve often been looked at through the lens of colonialism. You’ve certainly taken control of that in many ways like having pictures for you in publicity shots that show you laughing as a simple step. You’ve also taken control of that in your performances and your videos, juxtaposing times when you clearly were not in control of your own image, particularly with movie clips from Hollywood.

Bear Witness: It’s part of the same conversation we’ve been having. We’re coming into a time now where we can start breaking that cycle and, for the first time, have control of our own image. But for me, part of that process of taking control of our own image and creating something for ourselves within popular culture that does represent us – an important step in building that – is to look at all the stuff that’s happened in the past and all of these misrepresentations throughout the media. Let’s not just forget about them, let’s look at them and examine them, and look at ways that we can discuss these images now and not just forget about them and put them away and pretend that they never existed.

KGNU: The Pow Wow music and dance music combination seems obvious now that A Tribe Called Red is doing it? the original dance culture continues to evolve. Why, do you think, that this particular combination of sounds and culture didn’t happen sooner?

DJ NDN: There was a cultural ban up until the 60’s where First Nations weren’t allowed to practice their ceremonies, or their dances, or their cultures. So, it being like that recent where half a century ago we weren’t allowed to sing these songs and we weren’t allowed to dress in regalia, and stuff like that. It took awhile to be able to use those again in ways that weren’t traditional before. The idea of remixing these traditional songs is a brand new idea. It was never thought of to do that because it was something that was held so tightly because it was taken from us for so long that the idea of being able to do that is fairly recent. So, Idle No More and A Tribe Called Red, I think, are both really good examples of First Nation people, this is the first generation of people that didn’t have to go through the residential school system. So, it’s no coincidence that A Tribe Called Red and Idle No More are happening with the first generation that weren’t forced into residential schools.

KGNU: Yes, that makes sense. And A Tribe Called Red is not only creating community space for First Nations people but also expanding and creating a space for people outside of that culture. You’ve said that the music is allowing us to talk to people because now there’s an interest. So, tell us more about how you’re steering that conversation now that there’s this opportunity to have people paying attention outside the culture?

DJ NDN: We’re able to spark conversations now in a way that hasn’t really been afforded before. So with dance music and the videos that we’re sampling and using, there’s statements in there but their very subversive. They’re not the confrontation you would have by saying, ‘Yo! This is racist!’ – people are deducing their idea and taking apart what we’re showing them and what they’re listening to and their able to link those up together for themselves. When we play ‘I’m an Indian Too’ which is Irving Berlin from Annie Get Your Gun, we remix that song, and it’s extremely racist when this person is singing about how she’s an Indian too because she wears wampums and feathers, but we take it and remix it and now people are able to make that connection that these famous songs that have been played millions of times before are actually racist. And it just takes that second, it just takes that showing of it through a different lens, through the lens of the colonized instead of the colonizer.

KGNU: Musically your first album was made up of a number of individual tracks created over a longer period of time. On your latest, Nation II Nation you had a new experience through your connection with Tribal Spirit Music. Can you tell us about that, and about the title of the new album?

DJ Shub: The comparison between the two albums is big because the first album was a compilation of everything we’d done from when we first met each other over about two years. Compared to Nation II Nation, where we sat down and now we had a follow up album to do and we had this huge catalog from Tribal Spirit Music, a label out of Montreal, we had this amazing catalog to pull from which was a lot different from the first album.

Bear Witness: As for the title, like a lot of things we do it has a lot of layers to it. The idea of Nation II Nation, going from just within our group, and how Ian, he’s Ojibwe and Dan and myself are Cayuga. We’re from two very different nations, with very different culture, and even traditionally fought. But, now here we are together making music and realizing an understanding between us and by association between our nations. And you look at it about what’s going on in Canada right now with Idle No More and the discussions that the aboriginal nations of North America right now are trying to have with the settler nations and how that discussion really has to be done on a nation to nation level. But then it gets bigger and you look at the movements that are happening around the world with aboriginal nations from the world over and how we’re all connected and that we can now look at ourselves as one big nation. We have a tendency to feel very alone being a part of an aboriginal community in a settler nation but when you start to look at it on a larger and larger scale – you don’t feel so alone anymore.




Now Playing

Recent Stories

Upcoming Events