A Tribe Called Red: The Electronic Frontier

The record industry itself may be resistant to change, but that doesn’t mean the artists themselves are. In fact, one subset of music-makers that is constantly breaking new ground are those in the electronic music field. Whether it be ambient, analog, digital, dubstep, reaggaton, drum and bass or EDM, the electronic music is vastly expanding creatively, artistically and listener-wise. One such group among this list is the “powwow-step” stylings of A Tribe Called Red. But what is this stepping of the powwow?

Traditionally, in Native American culture (of which I know very little), a powwow is a formal gathering, complete with singing and dancing, food and fancy headdresses. It is often a mixture of both native and non-folk. In fact, the word powwow – which comes  from Narragansett, an Algonquin tribe from Rhode Island – means “spiritual leader”. And there is something divinely spiritual about the music of A Tribe Called Red and their sophmore effort “Nation II Nation”.

By combining the traditional chanting, hollering, stomping, drumming and other sounds of their culture, with hip hop beats, dance music and electronics, A Tribe Called Red awakens the white man to a whole new realm of artistry; one where music, spirituality, culture, history and invention collide. Like much of electronic music, it is largely instrumental, although chanting and calling can be heard throughout the record. At times it sounds as if their voices are sped up two or three times faster, others not so much. But what is interesting about Nation II Nation is its simplicity. It does not use autotune (thank Zaphod? – who is the Native God they “pray” to?), many songs contain minimal effects and layering, and yet it is something completely original and unique (at least to this native music layman)

It is also quite the collaborative effort. With the exception of the last track “Sweet Milk Pop”, every song features a fellow native artist or group. Some of the co-conspirators are the Chippewa Travellers, Black Bear, Northern Voice and Eastern Eagle. Each of them bring their own original content and voice. The music world has taken notice as well. A Tribe Called Red’s self-titled debut album was longlisted for the 2012 Polaris Music Prize, and ‘Nation II Nation’ recently made the top-ten shortlist for the 2013 edition. Clearly, these guys (yes they are all male – DJ NJD aka Ian Campeau, DJ Shub aka Dan General, and Bear Witness) are earning high praise and respect from their peers across all cultures.

It serves as an interesting parallel to what is happening with native youth today. While many are beset by homelessness, drug addiction and teen pregnancy, and many reserves are embroiled in political battles with Ottawa (which, coincidentally is where ATCR hails from), many urban first nations are doing quite well for themselves. While many native youth had decided to assimilate into white culture (in fact, ACTR is said to be for those natives in the dance club scene) the white man of my generation seems to have rekindled an interest in native culture and history. Perhaps its because we live side-by-side with each other now, and youth especially, seem to have put our differences aside and want to keep the piece. Let’s hope A Tribe Called Red continues the merging of two cultures and brings us all a little closer together.

Nation II Nation was self-released on May 6, 2013.

RIYL: Major Lazer, Diplo, Buraka Som Sistema, CSS


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