A Tribe Called Red: Powwow Step and Social Commentary for the Masses

by | March 28, 2012
filed under Can-Con

by Adrienne K. It was originally posted at her blog, Native Appropriations.

Something super exciting happened at midnight last night. So exciting, in fact, that I just had to share it with all of you. I don’t know about you, but my weekdays pretty much start out this way: Get up, head to my office, sit down at my computer, open A Tribe Called Red’s soundcloud page, and then proceed with my day. Just me?

Well now you can have A Tribe Called Red on your very own computer–because last night at midnight they dropped their debut album, which is available for download here, FOR FREE. How awesome is that?

For those of you new to A Tribe Called Red, they describe themselves on their blog as creating “a never before heard sound made up of a wide variety of musical styles ranging from Hip-Hop, Dance Hall, Electronic, and their own mash-up of club and Pow Wow music, known as Pow Wow Step, that is quickly gaining respect from all kinds of communities from all around the world.”

I’ve loved them since I read an interview back in Jan 2011 where they rail against hipster headdresses and mainstream representations of Natives. Some of my favorite quotes are below (both from DJ Bear Witness, though the other guys have great insights as well. I definitely recommend a read of the whole interview):

What is your goal when you sample images or references to indigenous people from Hollywood movies or pop songs?

Bear Witness: Reclaim, repurpose and reuse. I like to look past the automatic reaction to say these images are racist or stereotypes (which they are) and flip it around. We make these images our own. Taking away the power they have to harm us and reclaim it for ourselves. It’s like how we and many other young Native people like to wear things like the Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves logos. We have made these images our own.

Is it ever strange to bring music that samples traditional tribal music into a club setting?

Bear Witness: I’m a strong believer in the idea that culture and tradition are living, growing and changing things. We learn to understand our past to guide us into the future. I will always remember going to pow wows when I was a kid in the early ’80s, right around the time break dancing was getting really big. There were fancy dancers who were adding break dancing movies in with the pow wow steps and things like checkered bandannas to their regalia.

As someone who deeply cares about representations of Native people, I love how ATCR manages to reimagine what “Native” music sounds like, causing people to question their preconceived notions and stereotypes. They also are very aware of and respect cultural boundaries as well, striking a balance between wanting to be subversive and respecting tradition: “We want people to dance, so we use songs that are meant for people to dance to. We won’t use sacred songs, such as ‘honour’ or ‘grand entry’ songs, which aren’t even allowed to be recorded. We have way too much respect for the tradition to do that.”

They also did an awesome collaboration with the ethnomusicology lab at UCLA, where DJ Shub (Dan General) was able to work with some archival wax cylinder recordings of Cayuga tribal members. The song “General Generations” was the resulting track and can be found here, along with the story behind it. The scholar who worked with them also gives a great anecdote that I loved of not knowing how to address DJ NDN over email–“Dear Mr. NDN?”

Along with the music, images are a large part of ATCR’s weekly “Electric Powwows” at clubs throughout Canada, and many of their music videos are mash ups of stereotypical images from movies and other sources, carefully selected to re-appropriate and reclaim them.

Basically, their music is amazing and I love it, but I love that the group members are so into social commentary and working against stereotypes and negative representations of Native people even more. It’s like someone designed the perfect genre of music just for me! I thought this quote summed it up quite well: “A Tribe Called Red are more than just a music act; they are an audio-visual, cultural phenomenon.”

But because I am who I am, of course this post can’t be complete without some critical analysis of how ATCR has been portrayed by non-Native media outlets. I was ready and bracing myself for some of the usual racist BS, but was pleasantly surprised that the majority of the reviews of the group were great–highlighting the social activism and re-appropriation/reclaiming aspects of the group, as well as the popular appeal of the music.

But, one from MTV Iggy referred to “tribal drum circle music” and “sick tribal chanting,” and this one in the National Post calls the sampled Northern Cree songs “high pitched aboriginal cries.” Definitely a little exoticizing and othering, but in the grand scheme of things, not too bad?

TL;DR: Go download A Tribe Called Red’s debut album. It’s amazing, and you’ll be glad you did.

Download the album right here: http://www.electricpowwow.com/

You can also find A Tribe Called Red on Facebook, Twitter, and their blog.

MTV IGGY Album Review: S/T by A Tribe Called Red
MTV IGGY Interview: Q&A With Powwowstep Pioneers A Tribe Called Red: “Ke$ha Must Have A Big Pair [Of Balls]”
UCLA Ethnomusicology Review: Notes on the Collaboration with A Tribe Called Red
National Post: A Tribe Called Red’s Urban Powwow

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