Electronic powwow is music made for dancing

Published in Windspeaker newspaper | October 26, 2012 | Circulation: 145,000

Members of A Tribe Called Red on DJ Shub (Dan General)’s porch near Ottawa: from left, Ian Campeau, Bear Thomas, Dan General

The hypnotic thump of powwow drums dominates the opening of “Electric Pow Wow,” the emblematic track of Ottawa electronic crew A Tribe Called Red (ATCR), recently nominated for Canada’s prestigious Polaris Prize.Within half-a-minute, the drums and jingles of this representative track coalesce with the pitch-shifting warble of a heavily distorted synthesizer bass-line. Powwow singers and dubstep-style beats merge to create an entirely new sound that the five-year-old band labels “powwow step.”

For the three musicians who make up ATCR–Dan General (stage name DJ Shub), Ian Campeau (DJ NDN), and Bear Thomas (DJ Bear Witness)–being able to bridge the worlds of modern club music and Indigenous realities has near-infinite potential.

“It’s a good doorway to start having conversations,” Thomas says, leaning back on his chair on General’s back porch south of Ottawa. “People that listen to dubstep are now checking out powwow singers all of a sudden, to hear what the original sounded like.

“The same the other way. Kids on reserves are now listening to dubstep, which they’d never really heard before. It’s a good cross-cultural thing, where conversations are being opened both ways.”

But with Aboriginal music often segregated into its own cultural ghetto–or assumed to divide neatly into country-western or hip-hop depending on the generation–ATCR demands a rethink. When Campeau and Thomas started out making mashups (two-song blends) of powwow songs with dance beats, the phenomenon gained fast popularity at bi-monthly Aboriginal nightclub parties.

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A Tribe Called Red in member DJ Shub’s home studio near Ottawa. Photo by David P. Ball

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