Mixing a Modern Powwow

Until recently, First Nations drum beats and chants have been relegated to the rural aboriginal landscape.

Powwow music, while remaining extremely important to First Nations people, could never have been considered in any way, edgy or modern.

A group of DJs from Ontario has been doing its best to change that for good.

A Tribe Called Red (ATCR) is a group of three, Ottawa-based DJs in the process of doing something unique.

Dan General (DJ Shub), Ian Compo (DeeJay NDN) and Bear Witness are mixing traditional powwow sounds with electronic club beats to create dance parties that foster a community among First Nations youth in urban spaces.

The parties are called “electric powwows” and the group began hosting them in 2007. The current members have been working together since late 2009.

“It was just a simple idea to showcase ourselves as aboriginal DJs doing something positive in Ottawa,” says group member Bear Witness.

“But what happened right away was that there was a huge turnout of aboriginal people that we didn’t know in the city—we were sold out in the first night and really quickly became aware that it was something important, that we were creating a space within the club environment of Ottawa where aboriginal people feel comfortable.”

Powwow sounds and electric beats blend surprisingly well in the music created by this group of forward-thinking DJs.

The history and passion conveyed in powwow drum beats and chants marries the sheer energy of electronic music to create a seductive and intoxicating drug that makes you want to dance all night long.

The powwow sounds in most of ATCR’s music is mixed from existing CDs. Recently, however, the group has arranged to get a powwow group into the studio and they will be using those fresh sounds in upcoming tracks.

Earlier this year they produced a self-titled album, which was long-listed for the Polaris Music Prize.

DJ Shub and Witness are both members of the Cayuga First Nation of Six Nations, and DeeJay NDN is Ojibwe from the Nipissing First Nation.

The fact that all three members of ATCR were raised in cities, (Witness in Toronto, Shub in Fort Erie and NDN in Ottawa), has in no way lessened their ties to their roots.

Witness says all three of them still feel a strong connection to their First Nations community, and are passionate in fostering those ties in others.

The group members consider themselves to be part of the existing cycle of urban First Nations community building.

“A lot of us have been urban for a number of generations,” says Witness.

“If you go back to our grandparents’ generation, where people were first moving to the city, there was this real feeling of having to give up part of your culture and part of yourself, to leave your community and basically assimilate, become part of the urban community, assimilate to the settler nation.

“But in our parents’ generation, that really started to change. People were trying to reclaim a lot of culture and find a way to have an urban aboriginal identity that wasn’t loosing, that wasn’t becoming less than or assimilating, that you could be urban and aboriginal at the same time.”

ATCR is an integral part of this movement, especially for First Nations youth.

However, Witness is modest about their contribution to the process of urban First Nations community building.

“I wouldn’t say that we’re creating [the community], I’d say that it’s being created,” he says.

“It’s something that we’re just part of, we’re giving it a soundtrack.”

None of the group’s members has ever set in the Yukon, and they are excited to be coming here.

They will be performing at the Palace Grand theatre on August 18, and will lead a workshop on mixing with turntables early that afternoon in the Front Street Gazebo.

Proceeds from their performance will go towards the upcoming Moosehide Gathering.

You can download the new album by A Tribe Called Red for free at www.electricpowwow.com.

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