Indigenous Rhythms and Rage: A Tribe Called Red bring pow wow step to the masses
A Tribe Called Red | photo via

On my twenty seventh birthday, A Tribe Called Red, a first nations DJ trio from Ottawa, played a show at Silk City. I waited for hours before they performed at midnight. The summer night was sweltering, and over watered down drinks, my boyfriend and I considered leaving. Finally, the group took the stage. They started out where the previous DJ had left off, playing a bland party track. And then — up surged the deep bass, the heavy drums. Jolted from exhaustion — my entire body began to shake.

I found that I danced in a new way that night.

Four years and one Juno award later, the band is now playing bigger venues – like The Foundry of The Fillmore Philadelphia this Thursday, March 16th. Practitioners of what they call pow wow step, ATCR’s music is about something as elemental as a heartbeat, and as modern as dubstep. Ian Campeau, or DJ NDN, explains that “people hearing pow wow for the first time felt that same thing that indigenous people have always felt hearing pow wow.” The group matured at club nights in Canada’s capital city, where Native kids could go out, have fun and connect with each other.

The late American Indian poet and activist John Trudell wrote a series of poems for A Tribe Called Red; his voiceovers of different verses appear throughout their newest album We are the Halluci Nation, released last year.

Like Trudell, the group’s members are artists with an acute understanding of global politics.

“He’s one of the first people to let indigenous people know that we have rights, and that we are allowed to take those rights,” says Campeau. The group visited him not long before he died, and were surprised when a neighbor told them after that Trudell hadn’t been seeing visitors.

The poems, and the resulting songs, describe the ways in which capitalism, individualism, and racist institutions, have made it not just easy, but almost compulsory, to forget one’s tribe and connection to what it means to be human. In his work, Trudell often spoke of how far our culture had fallen from wholeness and belonging. The refrain of one of his poems is, “I flew with the eagles/ Until I fell from the nest/ I ran with the wolves/ Then got lost from the pack.”

Trudell was a key figure in the American Indian Movement (The FBI’s dossier on him was over 17,000 pages). A historian from the Smithsonian once told me that the movement facilitated a time of cultural remembering and knowledge sharing between different tribes. People from Western tribes, who had a stronger knowledge of their ancestral traditions, shared knowledge with native people from states like Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland, where colonization had happened several generations earlier.

The spirit of sharing with other indigenous people is always present in the A Tribe Called Red’s music. They’ve spent time working with and learning from other tribes, from Australia to Norway. “I knew we were all colonized,” says Campeau, “And that created a bond…now I refer to them as cousins.”

Take for example the samples of Tanya Tagaq on their most recent album. Tagaq is an Inuit throat singer. Her music, angry gasps that feel both dark and tender, is about feminine power and pain (her album Retribution is about the effects of rape). Campeau explained to me that in Inuit culture, throat singing is a game. Women will repeat each other to see who sang it better.

Campeau says the group sent Tagaq a beat, and she went into the studio, recorded something – and then the group scrapped the old beat and made a new song out of what she had sent.

“It was a really dope back and forth,” he says. Every song on the album, he says, has a little story like this.

The rage and sadness I experience in her music reminds me of the story of Trudell’s wife, Tina Manning Trudell. She and her three children died in the family’s home after a suspicious fire broke out. Manning Trudell was pregnant at the time.

Trudell once famously instructed, “Protect your spirit, because you are in the place where spirits get eaten.”

A Tribe Called Red’s music is a reckoning with a difficult past that allows some spirits the space, if not to heal, then perhaps to breathe.

At the very least, it’s one hell of a dance party for the resistance.

A Tribe Called Red will play the Fillmore on March 16 at 9 p.m.; for tickets and more information on the show, head to the XPN Concert Calendar

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