I remember once at a state fair in Maine, I got close to a group of Penobscot drummers as they beat leather hides with sticks, chanting hey ya’s. I watched. I listened. I closed my eyes. Eventually I found that I was crying, locked into something deep and real and very sad.
When I discovered A Tribe Called Red, a group of native DJs from Ottawa who blend dancehall and electronica over traditional pow wow music, I was both surprised and uplifted. Their new album, Nation II Nation, begins with chanting, spooky synths, and shifting beats.
DJs NDN (pronounced “Indian”), Bear Witness, and Shub call their music “pow wow step.”
Like so many things, the genre grew out of a party — but one with a political mission. Kids from native families had come to Canada’s capital for school or work and found themselves isolated. The DJs began hosting club nights in Ottawa, where kids could party and dance to a genre that felt familiar but new.
The DJ collective says they’re attempting to reach out to a group of people called “urban aboriginals”: native people who grew up in cities instead of reservations. It’s a particular kind of social experience, one that usually entails being one of three native kids in a large public school.
“I cut off my hair when I was little,” says Bear Witness. It was a necessary act — he kept getting kicked out of men’s bathrooms in his majority non-native community.
“One thing that my mom really instilled in me was that everything we do is political,” says Bear Witness. And by everything, he means getting up out of bed in the morning, walking down the street to buy coffee, even the simple act of reading a newspaper. These simple things matter, says Bear, “because everything has been done to stop us from being.”
On the night before I turned 27, I went with my boyfriend to see Tribe Called Red in a Philadelphia club. We waited for hours before they performed at midnight. We thought about leaving. It was 90 degrees outside, and our watered-down drinks weren’t compelling us into any real rhythm. Finally, the group took the stage. They started out where the previous DJ had left off, playing a party track. And then — on the projector behind them flashed images of native cartoon characters, grotesquely racist and yet so culturally widespread. Up surged the deep bass, the heavy drums. The sensation began in my hips and traveled up through my arms, until my entire body was shaking, seemingly without my consent.