by Harrison Samphir
“First Nations music” is a nebulous term. Who and what does it represent?
Is it simply a genre? A style? Or does it embody something more?
Whatever the case, aboriginal artists have certainly remained in the periphery of the modern music industry for some time. Despite the success of figures such as Buffy Sainte-Marie and The Band’s Robbie Robertson, the community has lacked an individual or group with the mass appeal or political tone to bridge the gap between aboriginal and non-aboriginal populations.
That might appear a tall order to some: creating a brand of music that at once honours tradition while reaching out to a world of settlers is no simple task, and requires a certain amount of political impetus to be effective.
But for A Tribe Called Red (ATCR), Ottawa’s three-piece “powwow-step” phenomenon, music and politics are closely associated–one gives life and energy to the other.
Made up of three aboriginal DJ-producers Dan “DJ Shub” General, Ian “DJ NDN” Campeau and Thomas “Bear Witness” Ramon–ATCR emerged from the Ottawa club scene and has since garnered international attention for their ‘90s-influenced EDM that dexterously fuses traditional Indigenous American singing and drumming with lush beats and synths.
ATCR’s monthly party in downtown Ottawa, dubbed “Electric Pow Wow,” marked the group’s first experimentation with contemporary Aboriginal music when they began it in 2007. Its aim was to establish collaboration between the DJ’s and various drum and vocal groups from across the country to showcase First Nations talent and attract swaths of the city’s small urban Aboriginal population. Before long, Electric Pow Wow was a huge success.
By 2012, the sounds of ATCR had spread well beyond Ontario’s borders. With the release of the group’s first record, a 10-track, self-titled disc, the group earned a spot on the Polaris Music Prize long-list, widespread national exposure, and a strong motivation to release more music.
Speaking with Stylus on the phone from Ottawa, Ian “DJ NDN” Campeau reflected on ATCR’s latest project, Nation II Nation, and how it compares to their debut in sound and breadth.
“This time around we had a project,” he said, alluding to the almost happenstance creation of their first album. “We had a specific goal, and a drum label called Tribal Spirit Music who opened their catalogue to us. In return, all the tracks we made credit their drums, and in return those drums get to use the track that we remixed on their album, and sell it however they want. So it’s a great symbiotic relationship that’s beneficial to both sides.”
Tribal Spirit Music is a cooperative aboriginal music label representing acts from across Canada. Groups such as Black Bear, an Atikameqw singing collective from Manawan First Nation in Quebec, and Smoketrail, an Ojibway troupe hailing from the Alderville First Nation in Ontario, are among six others that appear throughout Nation II Nation’s 10 songs.
Musically, ATCR’s second record sounds bigger and features more electronic nuances than its debut. On a track called “The Road,” mellowed drumming accompanies soft yet futuristic pulsations which escort the listener toward the chanting of Black Bear — a slow, ambient start to what later becomes a clamorous and dance-worthy beat.
This evolution carries over to the group’s political tone, too. Despite Campeau’s assurance that the trio are “just old EDM heads,” something about Nation II Nation is bigger than music itself; it’s ATCR’s determination to change the way you think about aboriginal music, aboriginal people, and aboriginal culture, all while making you get up and dance in the process.
Adorned with First Nations symbols both new and old, even the packaging of the new compact disc reflects the men’s motivations. On the inside cover one can find the group’s manifesto, adjacent to simple yet powerful images of each member’s Certificate of Indian Status.
“After what happened in the last hundred years, the simple fact we are here today is a political statement,” it reads. “As First Nations peoples everything we do is political.”
Indeed, ATCR is bigger than just “powwow-step” and dancing. As the title of their sophomore album suggests, it’s about bringing together voices from across the vast expanse of land that is Canada, and allow listeners to view first nations culture through a different lens.
“The idea behind what we’re doing has always been the same,” confirms Campeau. “To express who we are as people. None of us grew up on reserves, so we’ve been living in limbo between how aboriginal people are ‘supposed’ to be [living] and an urban setting. We never really had a spot . . . and there aren’t a lot of us around.”
Since the release of Nation II Nation, the Tribe has experienced critical acclaim and, as Campeau describes, seen their music met with “extreme ownership” by a multi-generational array of family, friends and community members. What is more, with the political authority of Idle No More spreading throughout the country, Campeau and company are thrilled to be standing at the apex of a powerful social movement.
“It’s our civil rights movement,” he said. “It’s extremely exciting, and it’s not stopping. We have this platform and we can have open conversations, and conduct our civil rights movement properly. It’s been exciting and it’s still happening right now . . . It’s no accident that Idle No More and A Tribe Called Red are happening in the first generation since the closure of the residential schools.”