The Urban Heartbeat of Mother Earth
The steady beat builds to a booming thump. The bodies on the dance floor writhe along, anticipating the peak. There’s a short beat break, and a half-second later it kicks back in with the wails of a Northern Cree pow wow anthem soaring above the club rhythm. The crowd erupts.
This is the Electric Pow Wow at Ottawa’s Babylon nightclub, one of the most popular regular events in the nation’s capital over the past two years. It’s the brainchild of what’s now called A Tribe Called Red – a collective of four unique and dedicated young Ottawa-based Aboriginal DJs. They are Bear Witness (Ehren Thomas), Dee Jay Frame (Jon Limoges), DJ Shub (Dan General) and Dee Jay NDN (Ian Campeau). Their music is a complex blend of old and new, but Campeau describes it simply as “traditional pow wow music mixed with contemporary dubstep or club music.”
“We wanted to showcase to the Native population that there were Native DJs in Ottawa and we were doing something positive and fun,” says Campeau, on how the movement started. It went from a bi-monthly club party to a touring showcase. “After the first one went so well, we kept throwing them and they got bigger.”
A Tribe Called Red has taken the Electric Pow Wow right across Canada, and just returned from a show in Philadelphia. They’re now planning a full-fledged North American tour and have their sights set on Europe. Red Skin Girl will see an official release next month.
The 29-year-old Campeau, an Anishinaabe who has roots in Nipissing First Nation, believes their beats strike a chord within urban Aboriginal people that’s never really been sounded. “I think it’s a natural progression and almost a necessity for our urban Native community,” he says. “Here in Ottawa alone we have a 30,000 Aboriginals in our city. We create a comfortable space that our urban population can say is theirs.”
And it’s a space that’s getting positively crowded. Their hometown shows are always filled to capacity with a diverse cross-section of the urban Native and non-Native demographics: students, musicians, artists, and politicians. Urban Aboriginal people are the fastest growing group in Canada, and A Tribe Called Red are only too proud to provide their soundtrack.
“It has been overwhelming!” says Campeau, and the response has been predominantly positive. “We had one person say ‘I don’t know about the word Pow Wow being thrown around in a place where booze is being sold. But I really like the music!’ That’s the only negative response we’ve heard.”
But Campeau believes having modern Aboriginal-rooted dance music in city clubs goes even further for their newer, younger fans. Culture shock is still a huge hurdle for young people moving from the rez to the city, and he says their effort is to establish a traditional sense of community in the urban sprawl. And like any infectious groove, their songs and videos go viral online.
“A huge highlight for me since we started this was hearing that young people from Northern Manitoba were sharing our music,” he says. “Another was having someone from Seattle thank us for making the ‘Woodcarver’ track.” (About John T. Williams, the woodcarver shot and killed by Seattle police)
If anything, the artists in A Tribe Called Red want hope and positivity to spread, despite the ongoing difficulties Aboriginal people across the country face. “It might be a little harder for us,” Campeau concludes. “But with determination and imagination anything is possible. I just want young people to remember that, and I hope they hear it in our music.”