- Top 100
April 4, 2012
I woke up this morning and opened my daily newspaper to see an article: Time Machine Could Cure Weak First Nations’ Leadership, from Richard Wagamese—famous author, and winner of the 2012 National Aboriginal Achievement Award for Media and Communications. In it, he laments the fact that the current crop of indigenous leaders are often chosen more for charm and capital than for right living and qualifications.
“But time travel is a fantasy. Similarly, simple answers to complex issues are rare. Sometimes, it seems the best we can do as an aboriginal collective is hope that such a leader comes along one day. Sometimes, all we can do is bide our time and wait for our youth to pick up the traditional mantle of leader and be a chieftain.
Sadly, what they lack are significant role models these days.”
Interestingly, I was listening to A Tribe Called Red’s new self-titled EP at the time. A collaboration between Ottawa area DJs DJ NDN (Ojibway from Nipissing First Nations), DJ Shub and Bear Witness (both Cayugan from Six Nations), the album sets traditional chants and pow-wow music to electronic beats. They first came to my attention this summer, when the National Post ran a feature length interview: A Tribe Called Red’s urban powwow. And just last week, on March 26, they released their first album for free download. On the one hand, it’s a massively accomplished piece of EDM. Most of the tracks live somewhere between moombahcore and dubstep, while others lean towards trance—one or two are even straight-up bangers. While it plays you get lost inside the music. On the other hand, it’s a bridge between past practice, and contemporary reality. Untranslated lyrics move me bodily, their cadence and height call me to dance and evoke a familiar landscape of wind-swept plains and an unimaginably vast Earth, even as they resist comprehension, and declare a way of knowing that isn’t my own. It’s a nuanced process of sharing and reterritorialization.
Consider the album’s opening track, Electric PowWow Drum, it starts out with heavy bass in the form of traditional drumming, and then is joined in by klaxon sounds, stomp rattles, and a heavy fuzzy bass line that perfectly complements the traditional song sung right over the top. In PowWow music, the literal drum and these singers are considered a unit, so closely do rhytym and song intermesh—and Electric PowWow brings home this circumincessence. The track slips into EDM seamlessly—and it brings home something that DJ NDN said in a January interview with Guillaume Decouflet up at Clustermag , “I think powwow music is, you know, electro-club music, before they had electro club… that’s what it was made for in the first place… it was made to make you dance.” And Bear Witness elaborating “… social dances, the idea is the same [the] gathering of people, bringing people together, people you haven’t seen for a long, people you see all the time, people you never met before, people from all comunities coming together to party and have a good time.”
But it’s more than just a party. I remember in university, as an art historian and anthropologist trying to make sense of Canada’s colonial past—I read a lot of Taiaiake Alfred, a Kahnawake Mohawk scholar I admire. When I read the neo-racist garbage that often appears in the mainstream media, or encounter ignorance that presupposes that contemporary relations between Canada and First Nations revolve solely around race, rather than our nations’ failed treaty commitments to sovereign governments, his plain-spoken works are a powerful corrective. Alfred talks a lot about celebrating survival—in the face of a dominant cultural narrative that portrays indigenous people as the almost disappeared remnants of noble savages celebrating survival is all about showing the ways in which contemporary indigenous people are both vitally alive, and heirs to a strong tradition, a “sacred heritage passed on by generations of ancestors who sacrificed and died to preserve the notion of their being… inherent strength that has allowed indigenous people to resist extinction.”
ATCR talk about their music coming out of First Nations’ nights that they put together for Ottawa clubs as a chance for the urban indigenous community to come together around their shared strengths, and to share indigenous music with a wider audience. Their PowWow step sound grew out of these electric, live audience roots and went national. At their shows (and in their music videos), they sample and remix visuals from old westerns and stereotypical images—reclaiming the one or two moments of real indigenous dancers performing, or showing the ridiculousness of Pocahontas imagery. It’s a process of reappropriation that robs damaging images of their power, and reclaims the ones worth holding onto. I love this video for their remix of Northern Cree’s Red Skinned Girl. From the absurdly malappropriated “Thunderbird Films” logo at the beginning to the hyper-saturated colours and vintage film samples, it cuts away the absurd (Robin Williams as consort to Sacagawea), and celebrates the beautiful. It’s also a break-neck remix that takes contemporary traditional music and shares it with a wide audience.
Another thing that Alfred talks about is self-concious traditionalism, that is, being informed by, and connected to the past, without succumbing to stasis. It’s something that ATCR speak about too, in an interview with MTV in 2011, asked if it was strange to sample traditional music, Bear Witness said “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.” That said, ATCR is careful about what the sample. Selecting with care to ensure that nothing traditionally secret, or privately sacred, is shared inadvertently. They ‘think through tradition,’ and reject ‘colonial premises,’ embodying the decolonizing process..
Speaking of decolonization and appropriation, it’s interesting to consider ATCR’s place in a scene where we’ve all seen hipsters in head-dresses. I suppose it’s fair to ask whether they’re pandering to a taste for exoticism, but this is something that they’ve also clearly thought about. In their Clustermag interview, Bear Witness talks about the hipster in head dress phenomenon:
“For a long time I was just like what the fuck…it was making me really angry for a long time … (but) we can’t deny that the people out there wearing head-dresses are listening to our music … (but the horrible cultural appropration that’s going on)…this whole thiing with the war paint and the head-dresses … that’s a crack in the door. The ignorance that’s going on, is actually a way in … we can say, that’s the fake stuff that you were going after … this is the real thing.”
There’s so much more to talk about with this album—things don’t get much more real than their track Woodcarver that samples newsfeeds and 911 calls to expose the Trayvon Martin-esque killing of Seattle area aboriginal artist John T Williams—but I think it really speaks for itself.
Check it out for free dowload over at: http://atribecalledred.blogspot.com/
Back to Wagamese then for a final word on time travel. I don’t disagree that all of us need better examples of leadership. I’m certainly not First Nations, or even part of the aboriginal collective. And I don’t suggeset that A Tribe Called Red should run for office. But while of course literal time travel doesn’t exist, artists and visionaries are capable of bringing the lessons of the past into the present. And I think that there are role models doing this right now, all around us.
From Rebecca Belmore to Marianne Nicolson, from Bill Reid to Yuxweluptun and from A Tribe Called Red to everyone participating in the Beat Nation exhibit up at the Vancouver Art Gallery right now, I’m grateful to all of the First Nations’ individuals who’ve taught me things about the physical landscape I live in. Sometimes leadership trickles up from underground.
For another great free release from last week, check out DJ MakeSmiles’ the Breakdown 17: Overwork.
Have a release I should check out? Drop me a line at email@example.com, or tweet me @worldsbestvegan
For another take on this album, check out Adrienne K’s Native Appropriations Blog.
Find A Tribe Called Red on Soundcloud at: http://soundcloud.com/a-tribe-called-red
And, this article is informed by, but can’t claim to summarize or encapsulate:
Alfred, Taiaiake. Peace, Power, Righteousness: An indigenous manifesto. 2nd Ed. Don Mills Ontatrio: Oxford University Press. 2009.