I’ve been going to Pow Wows on and off since 1995 when I was a volunteer with the local First Nation’s Friendship Centre where I live. For me, the best thing about a Pow Wow is how no matter where you are on the grounds you can always hear the big drum. From the moment Grand Entry begins (the ceremonial entrance of the dancers into the arena), to the closing ceremonies, the drum is almost always playing. Even when it’s so faint that you can barely hear it, the sound throbs up through the ground and into the soles of your feet. That’s when you really understand why it’s referred to as the heartbeat drum. Perhaps even more distinctive than the drum, and even more alien to those not used to it, is the sound of the singers gathered around the drum. In contrast to the deep pounding of the drum, they, men and women, sing in a high falsetto. Guaranteed to cut through any surrounding din, the singers can be heard just as clearly as the drum. Those who have never heard experienced the combination will probably have a hard time believing how spine-chilling it can be.
What might come as an even bigger surprise to some, myself included, is how well the form lends itself to modernization. Now I’ve got to be honest. I’m not the biggest fan of most hip hop, rap or dance music. It’s fallen so far from what it once was in the hands of community and political activists like Grandmaster Flash and Gil Scott Heron. So I’ve been leery about the First Nations hip hop groups who have been springing up across Canada. That’s until I heard A Tribe Called Red’s new release A Tribe Called Red, which they’ve made available as a free download. A Tribe Called Red are three Ottawa area First Nations DJs: DJ NDN, DJ Bear Witness and DJ Shub. They have been putting on what they call Electric Pow Wows on a monthly basis dedicated to showcasing Aboriginal DJ talent and contemporary urban Native culture.
So what is contemporary urban Native culture? Well, judging by the 12 tracks on the collective’s first CD, it owes as much a debt to inner city youth culture, Jamaican dance halls and modern electronics as it does to their various nation’s traditions. What distinguishes A Tribe Called Red from other DJ collectives, what makes them uniquely First Nations, is what they incorporate into their creations. While it’s true some DJs, especially those who specialize in trance, have begun turning to sources other than popular music for the samples they build their tunes around, the majority of A Tribe Called Red’s tracks are built around various drums. Drum, in this case, refers to both the physical drum and the people who make up the group of drummers and singers associated with the instrument. For example, The Whitefish Bay Singers of Ontario, Canada are also called The Whitefish Bay Drum.
The opening track, “Electric Pow Wow Drum”, starts off with the familiar “heartbeat” of the big drum. After a few bars, it’s joined by both an electronic pulse playing counterpoint and the sound of the jingles on dancers’ costumes, keeping time with the big drum as they move around the arena. Traditionally a jingle bell dancer’s regalia was covered with deer toes, but today the jingles are just as likely to be anything from the rolled up lids of tins of chewing tobacco to manufactured tin cones.
Then the singing starts. Normally the sound of the massed falsetto voices over top the drum is enough to send shivers up your spine. In this case the voices are fed through a synthesizer or processor of some kind that gives the voices an overlay of heavy fuzz, which heightens the effect even more. Cutting back and forth between the electronic pulse and the distorted singers, the song builds in intensity until the first break. There are two very distinct rhythms played on a drum during a song. There’s the heartbeat sound, which propels the dancers around the arena, and the break which, depending on the dance, requires the dancers to either dance in place or freeze. After the first break, in this case, the singing intensifies and an electronic melody (based on the rhythms of the song laid over top) serves as both a counterpoint and to add another layer of texture to the material
Any doubts I may have had about A Tribe Called Red were erased after I listened to this first track. Instead of merely being content with sampling the original music and ignoring the traditions behind it, they’ve managed to merge it with the technology they use as DJs and respect its original intent. It’s exactly what the title suggests it is, an “Electric Pow Wow Drum”. Not only does the song capture the power of the Drum, it enhances it. There’s no attempting to make the music more accessible by watering it down or giving it a catchy dance tune. Instead, it feels like they’ve grafted the realities of urban living onto their traditions to make them relevant to the world they live in.
Eight of the remaining 11 tracks on the disc combine traditional Pow Wow music and modern DJ technology. In each case, the guys have managed to find the same delicate balance that made the first track so effective. There’s nothing haphazard or sloppy about any of their choices, including the fact that they have found a wide variety of Pow Wow music to use in their material. Because A Tribe Called Red allows the original material to come through in the mix, you not only get to hear the music updated, you also hear how different one Drum can sound from another.
The last song on the disc, “General Generations”, is slightly different as it’s taken from an old wax cylinder recording of a singer who might have been DJ Shub’s great-grandfather. The sound of the scratchy solo voice taken from early primitive recording equipment, singing a song that might be hundreds if not thousands of years old and remixed with modern electronics, sums up the entire disc for me. It’s about keeping cultural traditions alive without allowing them to stagnate, making them relative to changing circumstances.
Also deserving of special mention is the song “Woodcarver”, written in commemoration of the Native American woodcarver John T. Williams, who was “unjustifiably shot” by a Seattle police officer in 2010. Using samples of news recordings and statements made by witnesses, family, and members of the Seattle Native American community, the song both honours the memory of the man and presents the facts of the case with minimal editorializing. Unlike the other pieces on the disc, “Woodcarver” isn’t something you’d expect to hear on the dance floor. What it is though is a good example of a found sound installation and the way modern sound technology can be used as a means of expression.
A Tribe Called Red is not only a collection of great music, it’s an example of how the modern and the traditional can come together to the benefit of both. Intelligent and inspired, the songs on this disc represent both a cross section of traditional Pow Wow music and the variety of sounds and techniques available to the modern DJ. In the past, I’ve been dismissive of DJ-created songs because most of what I’d heard up to now has pretty much sounded the same. The three DJs who make up A Tribe Called Red prove that doesn’t have to be the case. You can download a free copy of A Tribe Called Red by following this link.