Saturday, October 25, 2014
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A Tribe Called Red stays true to their roots while rising to fame

A Tribe Called Red perform in Ottawa. Photo John Paillé/flickr

A Tribe Called Red perform in Ottawa. Photo John Paillé/flickr

HAMILTON (CUP) — The Silhouette (McMaster University)

Politics and music go way back.

In the 1980s, Public Enemy challenged the assumption that music should be a form of entertainment and, as writer Mark Fisher points out, instead saw music as a way to define a new revolutionary history. Even earlier, legendary folk musician Woody Guthrie gave a voice to the Great Depression as he travelled across America carrying a guitar that famously displayed the words “This Machine Kills Fascists.”

Though music’s grand promise of leading revolutions has faded, it seems that now more than ever we need artists to shake up our assumptions about how we see the world. That’s what the music of A Tribe Called Red is all about — subversion.

But also dancing.

Based in Ottawa, A Tribe Called Red is a Canadian group that combines traditional pow-wow and electronic dance music.

“It started as a party called electric pow-wow,” said DJ NDN, one of group’s three members. “We played for the crowd, which was First Nations students, and people went crazy for one track that sampled pow-wow music, so we thought we should try more of it.”

People in clubs were so ecstatic that they cheered after the songs. Their first show to a mostly non-aboriginal Canadian crowd in Montreal even had people chanting the group’s name before they went onstage.

It seems like A Tribe Called Red has become really popular really quickly, but the members of the group have actually been at it for a long time.

“I used to be in punk bands,” said DJ NDN. “I played drums with Canadian punk rock legends the Ripcordz and we got to open for the Misfits.”

“I was probably in 12 bands growing up and just killed the high school battle of the bands scene,” said DJ Shub.

“You gotta remember that he’s way older,” added NDN, “so he was the DJ in the metal bands when the Limp Bizkit thing was really hot.”

Shub’s rap-rock (remember that?) abomination was called Flush Bucket. “It was the best battle of the bands ever,” said Shub.

“I found out really early on that I wasn’t going to play an instrument,” said DJ Bear Witness. “I got pushed into DJ-ing by my friends.”

A Tribe Called Red didn’t start out with any sort of political aspirations but quickly found that it was pretty much impossible to not be involved in politics. The group recently released a song called “The Road” in support of the Idle No More movement, and their music and live show often features clips of hilariously racist representations of indigenous people.

“A really good example is a video made by Bear of Super Cat, a Jamaican dude, singing about Indians from all directions, and a clip from a 1960s British variety show,’” said NDN. “You had these British white people dressed as what they thought Indians were supposed to be and a Jamaican singing about Indians. Everyone’s showing you what they think Indians are but nothing’s native about it — until we took it and decolonized it.”

The story of indigenous Canadians is so often told by people who are anything but. The “indigenizing,” as NDN calls it, of aboriginal representations is about trying to make our understanding not limited to what we already know.

“We see it as a very good way to subversively pass these messages on,” said NDN.

“It’s better than if we sat down and said ‘This is racist,’ because it gives people a chance think about it on their own.”

A Tribe Called Red play in Vancouver on Feb 21 at the Fortune Sound Club.