“I want to have fun on this album.”
It was an innocent remark, but that simple statement from Tim “2oolman” Hill to his A Tribe Called Red bandmate Ehren “Bear Witness” Thomas during a long-overdue vacation away from the punishing touring schedule the Ottawa dance-music troupe had observed for years – to the Kaya music festival in California in 2018 – wound up opening a path outward from an uncertain point in the group’s history.
That path ultimately led last month to the retirement of A Tribe Called Red as a going musical concern and a globally recognized “brand” and the announcement that Bear and 2oolman would be carrying on together as The Halluci Nation. Further word came over the May long weekend that The Halluci Nation’s first album, One More Saturday Night, will arrive July 30.
One More Saturday Night by no means represents a clean break with the past. Indeed, its very title references the fact that A Tribe Called Red never properly bid farewell to the Electric Pow Wow DJ night – an event aimed at Ottawa’s neglected Indigenous populations but quickly adopted, as Bear puts it, by everyone looking for “a safe, inclusive space in the Ottawa club scene” – the group hosted for nearly a decade at the Babylon nightclub before it ended abruptly in late 2017, shortly after co-founder Ian “DJ NDN” Campeau just as abruptly quit the band.
Campeau cited depression and anxiety brought on by the strain of relentless touring as reasons for leaving, but went on to publicly air his frustration that the group was losing focus on its activism on behalf of First Nations peoples. And this after fellow originator Dan “DJ Shub” General had already left in 2014, replaced by 2oolman as resident producer under acrimonious circumstances that necessitated the involvement of lawyers. Both former members declined numerous requests to participate in this piece, suggesting there are deep wounds remaining to be healed within A Tribe Called Red.
“This is what happened: we were just a bunch of DJs who played club music in bars,” says Bear, the last man standing from Tribe’s 2007 beginnings. “What shifted was, when we decided to start using our culture and people were going to come see us and listen to us because we were using our culture, then that created a responsibility. We might not have known at the time that we were making a decision no longer just to be DJs, but we made that choice. And we stepped into that world kind of by accident.”
Tribe’s position at the forefront of an explosion of Indigenous music in Canada helped along by such contemporaries and collaborators as Inuk avant-gardiste Tanya Tagaq and Colombian-Canadian singer/songwriter Lido Pimienta placed a lot of weight on the group’s collective shoulders, to put it mildly. Which is why 2oolman suggested – after integrating himself into the fold on 2016′s We Are the Halluci Nation, which both he and Bear concede was “a really heavy album” – that it might not hurt to lighten up a bit. Or at least find a more level balance between the group’s messages of self-empowerment and anti-colonialism and the after-hours fun that led Tribe to trace the lines between Indigenous pow-wow “dance music” and post-rave beats in the first place.
“It didn’t have to be that same, very full-on, punching-you-in-the-face political message,” Bear says. “That didn’t have to be our whole thing.”
It was during the period of forced contemplation brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic that he and 2oolman finally realized that it would be disingenuous to carry on as A Tribe Called Red.
“There was, all of a sudden, this stop in motion,” Bear recalls. “I think something happens when you haven’t had that much time to be at home and to rest in your own bed and to eat food out of your own kitchen. It had been 10 years of not having those sorts of things in long stints, and when the pandemic happened and we were forced to be at home, it really gave us a chance to digest the things that had happened to us and that we were doing. It had just been ‘go, go, go.’ So there’s been a real process lately of just unpacking – literally and figuratively – our road bag.”
One More Saturday Night doesn’t abandon Tribe’s politics, by any means. Like We Are The Halluci Nation, it opens with the voice of the late Native American activist, poet and musician John Trudell – the man who coined the name The Halluci Nation in the first place during a meeting with Tribe in Santa Fe in 2014 – and the track list is long on galvanizing dance floor numbers like Land Back, an anti-pipeline protest banger released last year under the Tribe moniker in support of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation.
There is, however, a new lightness of touch evident in One More Saturday Night’s “anything goes” flirtations with everything from familiarly booming, Tribe-esque “pow-wow-step” to house, techno and hip-hop – even some seething electro-rock on the gnarly Mother Mother, a track that 2oolman enthuses is “so different from anything else that we’ve done, sonically and mood-wise.”
True to the concept of the greater “Halluci Nation,” which Bear and 2oolman have come to regard as the global network of friends, collaborators and allies they’ve amassed over the years through their music, the guestlist is suitably stacked, too: Tagaq, Canadian rappers Odario and Haviah Mighty, Grammy-winning Texas “electro-cumbia” star El Dusty, New Zealand Maori artist Rob Ruha, First Nations outfits Black Bear and Chippewa Travellers and round-dance-meets-R&B singer/songwriter Antoine Edwards, Jr.
If the music is a little more lighthearted, The Halluci Nation still carries the weight of its responsibilities.
“And of course it’s heavy – we’re human,” Bear says. “But because our communities don’t have the same voice and the same opportunities to participate in something that has the power to cross all barriers, you are then stepping into the face of responsibility – you have to use that voice.”
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Editor’s note: (May 31) A previous version of this article incorrectly noted the year that A Tribe Called Red was formed, as well as misidentifying California's Kaya Festival. This version has been updated.