When they first began pairing propulsive electronic beats with powerful powwow singing and drums, the three members of A Tribe Called Red had no idea their unlikely mix was about to catapult them into the international spotlight.
Their first full-length recording, A Tribe Called Red, was long-listed for the prestigious Polaris Music Prize; their second, Nation II Nation, garnered two Juno nominations, landed on myriad year-end lists – including that of the Washington Post – and made the Polaris shortlist. Now, younger aboriginal artists from around the globe are handing them samples of their electronic mixes.
“It’s been pretty mind-blowing. The crazy part is that there’s been so much happening that it’s hard to keep up with,” group member Bear Witness says on his cellphone from a Winnipeg tour stop with bandmates DJ Shub and DJ NDN. “At the Polaris gala, we definitely felt like the new kids, like ‘Wow, what are we doing here?’” he adds with a laugh. “But everybody was awesome and it was an amazing experience. It’s been exciting.”
But the most rewarding part of their meteoric success, he says, is how quickly the indigenous community has embraced their decidedly contemporary sound, which eschews outdated stereotypes and reflects today’s urban aboriginal experience – and incorporates contemporary powwow music.
“People will ask, ‘Where do you find these old recordings?’ And we say, ‘These aren’t old recordings,’” Bear Witness recounts. “These are current groups. These are guys in their 20s and 30s, and they’re writing songs about Facebook and other current things. It’s not something that’s in the past. It’s a living culture.”
A Tribe Called Red has also supported several political causes, including the Idle No More movement; DJ NDN also filed a human-rights complaint against an Ottawa amateur football club called the Redskins.
The trio is performing as part of the 13th annual Talking Stick Festival, which features dance, music, drumming, theatre, film, visual arts and more by aboriginal artists, among them Vancouver favourite Margo Kane and Juno winner Crystal Shawanda, who performed as part of U.S. President Barack Obama’s inauguration.
A Tribe Called Red show at the Commodore Ballroom on Saturday whipped up so much demand that promoters added a second one on Friday.
“I think we’re at the beginning of a really big wave of indigenous people in arts and in electronic music, and it’s huge,” Bear Witness says. “We’re seeing it from indigenous communities across the world, that people are turning onto this idea of mixing their traditional knowledge and culture with the rest of the world. And I’m just excited to see what’s going to happen next.”