The next hot sound? Powwow step, aboriginal hip-hop

Perhaps best exemplified by the group A Tribe Called Red, powwow step is more than just a music genre

The members of A Tribe Called Red are, from left, Ian Campeau, Dan General and Bear Witness. Their mixture of different sounds has been dubbed powwow step.
Pat Bolduc

Once you hear it, it makes total sense: a blend of hip-hop, reggae and dub-step, with elements of the traditional dance music of Native American powwows.

It's powwow step, a powerful, catchy sound that has carried the aboriginal DJ crew A Tribe Called Red from Ottawa, Canada, to sold-out venues worldwide.

“All we really did was match up dance music with dance music,” Ian Campeau, a member of the group, said modestly.

But there’s much more to the rise of A Tribe Called Red, which hasn’t shied away from political issues as Canada wrestles with its brutal treatment of indigenous peoples through history. The three-man crew is part of a new generation of artists who are helping redefine how aboriginal culture is viewed by the wider Canadian public and articulate the need for greater aboriginal self-determination.

A Tribe Called Red has been a vocal supporter of the grass-roots protest movement known as Idle No More, spoken out against an Ottawa-area youth football team called the Redskins (the team decided to drop the name this fall) and denounced fans who showed up in aboriginal headdress at their shows.

“We don’t have a luxury of saying, ‘OK, we’re going to just be a band,’” said Bear Witness, another member of the crew, sipping on a coffee at a Montreal hotel.

“But that’s not who we are,” he said. “We’re indigenous artists. I have moments where I feel weak and I don’t want to have to take this on and carry this kind of weight all the time. But it’s not a choice. It’s reality, and it’s a responsibility.”

Music to bear witness by

The cover art for "Nation II Nation,'' the latest recording by A Tribe Called Red.
Ernesto Yerena

A day earlier, Bear, Campeau (aka DJ NDN, which stands for “never die native”) and fellow crew member Dan General (aka DJ Shub) performed at a trendy club on the same block, in the heart of Montreal’s downtown.

Although their set didn’t start until well past midnight, the crowd was ready to dance — no, more like jump — to the beat, a mass of waving hands and bopping heads.

Onstage, the three men stood in a line before an impressive collection of laptops, turntables and mixers, systemically overlapping traditional vocals and drums with electronic bass music.

One of the biggest cheers came when the group began one of its catchiest tracks, “Electric Powwow,” with a sample from a Louis CK rant on the absurdity of the term “Indian.”

Another strong track, “Braves,” reworks the tune best known as the rally song of baseball’s Atlanta Braves, the tomahawk chop.

“At first the results seem gimmicky,” The Guardian said in a review of the group’s new album, “Nation II Nation,” “but soon the care and determination with which this trio have undertaken to project and protect this traditional musical form becomes apparent.”

At the show, screens set up on either side of stage rework stereotypical depictions of Native Americans in everything from silent films to cartoons.

The group’s imagery, like its music, forces the audience to rethink the perception of what it means to be aboriginal.

At one point, the time-traveling DeLorean from “Back to the Future 3” pops onto the screen and is chased down by a group of natives on horseback. The scene is played in a choppy loop, with the colors distorted.

“At its root, it’s about looking at the one-dimensional misrepresentation of aboriginal people in the media and examining it and digging deeper below the surface level,” said Bear, a self-described “media-obsessed person” responsible for the group’s footage.

A museum exhibit

An exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Montreal includes clothing and regalia used by performance artist Skaeena Reece, whose heritage includes Metis, Cree, Tsismshian and Gitksan.
Sebastien Kriete

Bear, a Cayuga tribal member from Six Nations, is also one of the artists featured in an exhibit at Montreal’s Musee d'Art Contemporain, “Beat Nation: Art, Hip Hop and Aboriginal Culture.” The exhibit, originally assembled for a small gallery in Vancouver, is now making its way across the country.

It’s an eclectic mix of paintings, sculpture, installation and video that juxtapose stereotypes about Canada's indigenous people with contemporary reality.

At the entrance, a multimedia piece called “dubyadubs” features footage of Iron Eyes Cody —an actor of Italian descent who played Native Americans in Hollywood films — accompanied by electronic music.

The piece, put together by the Montreal-based DJ madeskimo, who has Inuit roots, includes samples of Hindi music — another nod to the wrongheaded notion of the Indian propagated by the first European explorers.

Elsewhere in the exhibit, the image of thunderbird — a mythical creature frequently depicted in aboriginal art of the Pacific Northwest — is reimagined as an urban landmark, buzzing in neon light.

Inherent in much of the work is the case for the right of Canada’s aboriginal people to determine their own future and regain control of their territories — an argument that was thrust into the mainstream during last year’s Idle No More protests, said Tania Willard, one of the curators of the exhibit, who lives on a reserve near Kamloops, British Columbia.

While the exhibit is a significant step in the mainstream acceptance of contemporary aboriginal art, Willard said she was careful not to present it “as some kind of new moment where aboriginal people were all of a sudden embracing new media.”

For many years, “weve advocated and fought to get inside the galleries,” she said.

Over the years, there has been some criticism from older community members who see the infusion of hip-hop into aboriginal culture as a break from tradition toward mainstream assimilation.

But like all artists, Willard said, those featured in the exhibit are exposed to a “pluralist, multi-influence kind of world” and don’t want to be “limited by a specific ethnographic lens.”

“Were complete and total people living in this world, and we have many influences,” she said.

How many people from K-town?

In the case of A Tribe Called Red, Bear said, the group makes an effort to use powwow songs in a way that honors the roots of indigenous culture.

“I know that there’s people out there who are traditional and really serious about what powwow is and may not appreciate what we’re doing, but that hasn’t been something we’ve been confronted with,” Bear said.

“People within the powwow community haven’t come and told us to stop doing what we’re doing.”

If anything, the group’s entry into the mainstream seems to have helped bridge a divide between aboriginal and nonaboriginal people.

In the summer of 1990, Campeau points out, a Mohawk community near Montreal, Kanesatake, was involved in a dispute with the nearby town of Oka. The situation became known as the Oka crisis.

Real estate developers wanted to extend a golf course onto an ancestral burial ground of the Mohawk nation. The Mohawks barricaded a road leading to the development in protest, and the government countered with an intervention from police and, eventually, the Canadian military.

Now, two decades after that ugly episode, a lot of residents of the Mohawk territory closest to Montreal, Kahnawake, remain upset about the conflict, and some still rarely go to the city, said Campeau, who is an Ojibway from the Nipissing First Nation.

But A Tribe Called Red said more made the trip to see the band’s latest Montreal show than on previous occasions. (The question “How many people from K-Town are in the house?” got a huge cheer.)

“Now that we’re playing in bigger shows, it seems they’re more comfortable,” Campeau said.

“Maybe they want to claim us as their own.”

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