Beat power: Aboriginal DJs highlight struggle with powwow step

Published in This Magazine | March/April, 2013 | Circulation: 5,000 subscribers

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

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

As the grassroots Idle No More movement rallied its second explosion of flash mobs, round dances and drum-fuelled rallies late last year, three acclaimed DJs fired off their own timely communiqué: a reminder that the struggle for Indigenous rights is a long and difficult road.

“In solidarity with Idle No More and Chief Theresa Spence,” declared A Tribe Called Red upon the launch of their track “The Road.”

The release coincided with the group’s new EP, Trap Line, a follow-up to the Polaris Prize-nominated Electric Pow Wow, cited as one of music magazine Exclaim!‘s top-10 albums and CBC Music’s “best aboriginal album of the year.” Playfully riffing on the trap genre — a souther U.S. hybrid of break-beat, hip hop, and dubstep — and sampling from the likes of award-winning Atimekw powwow musicians Black Bear, Trap Line sets its snares with catchy electronic bait, while celebrating self-determination, social change, and liberation.

Anyone who’s attended one of ATCR’s concerts can attest to their addictive power: unstoppable dancing, captivating projections, heavy, aggressive basslines, and three musicians grinning mischievously behind their mixing boards.

“The first time I saw a party, it was unbelievable,” says Dan General (aka DJ Shub), sitting on the back porch of his home, just outside Ottawa. Together with his collaborators, Ian Campeau (DJ NDN) and Bear Thomas (Bear Witness), General is responsible for inventing the electro-native dance beat “pow wow step.”

“I’d never seen our own people dance to music like that before,” General says. “I knew this was going to be a big movement, and I just wanted to be a part of it… I just knew it was something different I was hearing.”

But as Idle No More is more than a fad – rather, a movement to transform Canada’s relationship to aboriginal people – ATCR is more than a cross-cultural experiment. For the band’s members, the music is at once a political statement, an act of rebellion, and a celebration of resurgent community.

Now, thanks to Idle No More, the long-silenced conversation about decolonization is raging. But can it force a change in the status quo? The stakes are extreme: Canada imprisons a disproportionate number of aboriginal people in jails and foster homes and, according to the Native Women’s Association of Canada, more than 600 aboriginal women have been murdered or are missing.

“We’re unapologetic about being Aboriginal,” says Campeau, who belonged to an Ottawa drum circle when he was a kid, which led him to travelling the powwow circuit and then joining a punk band when he was 13 or 14. “That’s when my music career started.”

That career led Campeau to meet Thomas, form ATCR and initiating a collaboration that has seen the group tour Germany and the U.K. and perform at Greece’s venerated WOMEX festival, New York’s GlobalFest, and Austin’s SXSW.

Despite acceptance from the club scene, ATCR hasn’t veered from politics. The release of “The Road” continues the activism of “Woodcarver,” a song off the group’s first album, which is dedicated to aboriginal Seattle artist John Williams, whose fatal shooting by a police officer was captured on video.

“We were pissed,” Campeau says. “I remember watching that video and thinking, ‘That’s so sad and so horrible.’ But at least it got caught on camera and that cop’s going to get some sort of jail sentence.’

When the officer was eventually let off, ATCR responded by writing “Woodcarver.” Campeau says, “We had a great response from Aboriginal people in Seattle who said, ‘Thank you for doing this.’”

As ATCR gains popularity outside of the community, Thomas admits to worrying that audiences are listening to the music without context.

“We’re using video and live DJing, but I don’t know if people will have the references to understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it,” he says. “But it’s almost a foot in the door – they’re doing this whole fake hipster-headdress romanticized idea of what an Indian is. But you’re still going to turn on A Tribe Called Red, and you’re going to hear real pow-wow music. Who knows? Maybe one out of a hundred of those people will actually learn something from that, and learn to dig a little deeper.”

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