courtesy A Tribe Called Red

Pow wow step is all about making people dance

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The Ottawa DJ collective A Tribe Called Red have made headlines lately and not just because they were nominated for two Juno Awards and were short-listed for the 2013 Polaris Music Prize.

The collective took to Twitter last summer to stop non-aboriginal fans from wearing headdresses and warpaint to their shows. A month later, Ian Campeau (DJ NDN) filed a human rights complaint against an Ottawa football club, the Nepean Redskins Football Club, over their name.

Politics are inseparable from a Canadian DJ collective of all aboriginal artists. But while Campeau, who is of Ojibway descent, does not downplay the importance of the politics and raising awareness of aboriginal concerns in Canada, he points out that for A Tribe Called Red it really is all about the music.

A Tribe Called Red is nominated for Breakthrough Group of the Year and for Electronic Album of the Year. However, they did not enter their latest album, Nation II Nation, under the Juno award category for Aboriginal Album of the Year.

Campeau told the Calgary Herald recently that the decision was because the group wanted to be judged entirely on their music.

Campeau says that when it comes to electronic music it isn’t necessarily about where you’re from, it’s about enjoying the music.

“That’s all we set out to do. As political as you want to take us, we’re DJs and we just want to make people dance,” Campeau says. “That’s why we do what we do and if people get the political undertones that’s just kind of an added bonus.”

The group’s distinctive sound, a combination of pow wow and electronic which has already formed its own sub-genre known as pow wow step, began when Campeau and Bear Witness threw a series of culture-specific parties in Ottawa.

“We wanted to throw one and gear it towards the First Nations people in Ottawa,” Campeau says. “That’s it. That’s where everything came from. We threw the first one and it was this huge overwhelming success.”

The parties became packed with people from communities across Ontario and Quebec who were in Ottawa for school — people Campeau says felt “extreme culture shock” and never really felt comfortable going out to socialize.

“We were told right away that we had to keep these parties going,” Campeau says. “As these parties were gaining steam in Ottawa, we started mashing up pow wow music with dub step — which was the hot sound — just to give back and be like, yeah this party is for us and by us and here’s some music you’ll get.”

When Dan General (DJ Shub) joined in 2010 they began producing their own music.

Rather than deliberately traditional or reimagining traditional aboriginal music, Campeau says their music is a cultural continuance of traditional pow wow music.

“Technology will infiltrate any sort of culture,” Campeau says. “Technology catches up eventually right? So we see it as a cultural continuance and more of a soundtrack for the urban aboriginal experience, which there was a big gap for for a long time.”

Pow wow step seems to have hit upon how current generations feel, based on the overwhelming response the collective has received.

But Campeau says the DJ collective certainly hasn’t found time to enjoy their sudden popularity. The Juno nominations haven’t sunk in yet.

“Hearing you say Juno nomination and Polaris shortlist hasn’t really registered yet. It’s still all pretty surreal,” Campeau says. “It comes as a surprise. You’re in your little bubble — tour vans and planes most of the time. Then it is really weird to go to different cities in other countries where people recognize you and stop you on the street.”

A Tribe Called Red were long-listed for the Polaris Music Prize in 2012 for their self-titled debut album and Campeau says that is still setting in.

Currently on tour, the collective are already looking ahead and are eager to collaborate with other artists on their next album. They are looking to collaborate with other aboriginal artists including rappers and even a cellist.

It was announced this week that A Tribe Called Red will be performing at the Calgary Folk Music Festival this summer.