For many years, the Indigenous people of (the stolen land known as) Canada remained under the mainstream cultural radar. They simply didn’t seem to exist anywhere; in magazines, radio, newsprint or television. They were spoken of in whispers and when I did see them, they kept very much to themselves. In the back of my mind I found this disparity rather disquieting but had no idea what was wrong. I had yet to know anything about the horrific legacy of residential schools and the effects of post-colonialism.
Along came Idle No More and changed all that. Suddenly First Nations and Aboriginals were in the spotlight, standing up for environmental issues and shaking things up. The pendulum was finally swinging in the other direction. And the time was right for A Tribe Called Red to enter the spotlight.
After the release of their eponymous album as a free download in 2012, things gained considerable momentum for the trio of DJ’s from Ottawa, namely Tim “2oolman” Hill, Bear Witness and Ian “DJ NDN” Campeau. Glowing reviews in NOW magazine tagged them as a group to watch. The plaintive tribal wail of Electric Pow Wow Drum fused with infectious dubby rhythms made millions of heads bop and take notice. Technically their music can be described as pow wow music married with electronica and hip-hop elements. On a deeper level, their aforementioned signature track is a protest song; the singers’ visceral war like cry contrasts sharply with the playfully condescending voiceover of a white American comedian making off the cuff remarks about “Indians.” In an unobtrusive manner, A Tribe Called Red brings deep seated racism to the forefront while making you shake a leg. Which is no small accomplishment, given how uncomfortable a subject matter this is for so many.
At the end of the day, their music is essentially geared to make you forget all your troubles and dance your ass off. Which they managed to do successfully during Panamania at Nathan Phillips Square on August 12th. It was immensely gratifying to see my taxpaying dollars do something useful for a change! Though at times I sensed they needed to stretch themselves artistically, (as if they’d become a wee bit bored with playing certain songs) they were a definite crowd pleaser. It was pretty dope to see the athletically gifted hoop dancer interpret a remix of A Tribe Called Quest’s “Award Tour.”
Anyone who’s ever attended a pow wow can attest to the raw power of traditional chanting with men screaming at the top of their lungs as they whack a huge drum in syncopation while dancers dressed in fine regalia move in a slow circle around the drummers. Big ups to A Tribe Called Red for bringing traditional music to the masses in an easy to digest format. It can only get better from here on out.
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