âWe hear stories of whole families listening to us, and sometimes itâs Grandpa who discovered it first,â says Thomas, who records under the name Bear Witness. âWe havenât had something that reflected indigenous people, made by indigenous people, that was out there in popular culture before. So even for people of an older generation, even if they donât necessarily understand the music, the concept is exciting.â
Growing out of Electric Powwow, the monthly party Thomas, along with Ian âDJ NDNâ Campeau and Dan âDJ Shubâ General, has hosted in Ottawa since 2008, the music of A Tribe Called Red is made with a mind toward communal celebration. Dubbed âpowwow-step,â it isnât some staid brand of âworld fusionâ but true, speaker-rattling club music, featuring ululating vocal samples and tribal drums manipulated to fit the rhythms of dubstep, dancehall and moombahton. Itâs a novel creation, and one that sounds surprisingly natural. But as Thomas points out, the traditions theyâre connecting arenât actually that far apart.
âWe really see what weâre doing as a cultural continuum,â Thomas says, âtaking some of the ideas of powwow as being a gathering place into the club, where we, as urban indigenous people, go to gather.â
Despite the party-forward ideology, A Tribe Called Red hasnât skirted the political obligations foisted upon them. Theyâve openly supported Idle No More, a movement to expand the rights of indigenous people in Canada, and helped pressure the Nepean Redskins, an Ottawa-area amateur football team, into changing their name. More personally, the group has issued statements urging fans not of First Nation descent to refrain from showing up at its gigs in headdresses and warpaintâa common scourge on the festival circuit.
And while its music is inherently apolitical, the group has come to realize that its sheer existence is a statement in itself. Initially apprehensive of performing outside the continent, A Tribe Called Red eventually embraced its ambassador status, touring Europe with the intent of giving a face to North Americaâs modern indigenous people for an audience whose perceptions are still informed by John Wayne movies. But as its profile growsâgetting co-signed by Diplo and long-listed for Canadaâs prestigious Polaris Music Prizeâthe trio now finds itself assuming a position itâs less prepared for: that of role models.
âThat oneâs got me a little more shook,â Thomas says, âbut like everything else, Iâm willing to meet it and man up to the responsibility of it all.â
SEE IT: A Tribe Called Red plays Holocene, 1001 SE Morrison St., with World Hood and Global Ruckus, on Thursday, April 3. 8 pm. $12 advance, $15 day of show. 21+.