A Tribe Called Red: Aboriginal club music gives voice to the urban experience

Published in the August 25-31 issue of NOW Magazine

Aboriginal music has three young, powerful advocates, and they have no problem speaking their minds.

“If you’re an aboriginal person in an urban community who doesn’t fit a stereotype – living on the street or walking around in buckskin and feathers – you become invisible,” says A Tribe Called Red’s Bear Witness.

Bear, with DJs NDN and Shub (a two-time Canadian DMC champ), is behind the Ottawa club night Electric Pow Wow. Founded in 2008, it’s also birthed a Diplo-co-signed hybrid sub-sound: pow wow step.

“Electric Pow Wow was about creating a comfortable space for our community to come out,” explains Bear, an audiovisual DJ who deconstructs pop culture depictions of aboriginal people in his sets. “And pow wow step was conceived as club music that aboriginal people could relate to.”

A Tribe Called Red’s remix of Northern Cree’s Red Skin Girl released as a single in July reveals pow wow step’s visceral force. Hip-hop sensibility and dubstep’s immediacy combine with the percussive and vocal power of old and new pow wow music.

NDN says the group avoids reworking honour songs with deeper spiritual significance.

“There’s a global movement of aboriginal people taking traditional sounds and mixing them with their urban experience,” he says, citing South Africa’s Spoek Mathambo and Monterrey, Mexico, DJs Toy Selectah and Javier Estrada as examples.

“What we share is that we’re all culturally oppressed and doing something that’s never been done before.”—Anupa Mistry