First Nations DJs Mix Tradition With Electronic Beats

Sep 17, 2013

A Tribe Called Red is an Ottawa-based trio of First Nations DJs who remix social powwow music with electronic dance beats.

The group’s music has put them at the forefront of a First Nations political and cultural renaissance.


  • Ian Campeau, member of A Tribe Called Red.
  • Bear Witness, member and visual designer for A Tribe Called Red.
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For this next segment, I've got one piece of advice: turn the volume up.


CHAKRABARTI: You're listening to music from A Tribe Called Red.

IAN CAMPEAU: I'm Ian Campeau aka DJ NDN. I'm Ojibway from Nipissing First Nations, specifically.

BEAR WITNESS: And I'm Bear Witness, also one of the deejays for A Tribe Called Red, and I'm Cayuga from Six Nations.

CHAKRABARTI: Campeau and Bear Witness are Canadian. They were two of a small group of native or First Nations deejays in Ottawa when in 2008, they decided to remix pow-wow drums and chants with the dance music they were already using for their shows.

WITNESS: So when we first came together, it was really just under the idea that showcase ourselves as average, little deejays in Ottawa as well as have a party that was directed towards our community.

CAMPEAU: It was overwhelming success.


CHAKRABARTI: People loved it. Campeau, Bear Witness and DJ Shub, the third member of A Tribe Called Red, were onto something as you can hear in this track. It's called "Different Heroes," off their latest album, "Nation II Nation."


CAMPEAU: All we really did was mix dance music with dance music because club music is made to make you dance and powwow music is absolutely made to make you dance.

WITNESS: And even the name electric powwow itself, we've always seen this as more of a cultural continuance than anything else, and that we're really continuing those same ideas that come from powwow. Just where do we do that now as urban indigenous people? We do it in clubs.


CHAKRABARTI: A Tribe Called Red has had a big year. They've toured worldwide, including the South by Southwest Music Festival and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. And when I talked to Ian Campeau and Bear Witness, I asked them if any Native Canadians had objected to their electric powwow, even though the music has put them at the forefront of a First Nations political and cultural renaissance.



CAMPEAU: The short answer is no.

WITNESS: I think Ian just had a really interesting experience at a powwow in Winnipeg where a friend of ours was there with her mother. And her mother was, like, you know, I'm real traditional, so I'm not totally comfortable with what you guys are doing. But I still really wanna have my picture taken with you.

CAMPEAU: Yeah. Yeah. Can I get a picture with you? Yeah.


CHAKRABARTI: Well, is part of the reason why you think you don't use, you know, strictly sacred powwow music that - I understand you're using mostly social powwow music?

CAMPEAU: The songs that we're remixing are typically, like, competitive or for specific dances, like jingle dress or crow hop or, you know, that sort of thing. Well, it's not that it's not sacred. Well.

WITNESS: It's all sacred.


CAMPEAU: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

WITNESS: This is where it gets - this is the - this is where the complicated - where it gets really complicated what we're doing and trying to stay respectful. But also we started asking for multi-track recordings of powwow, which had never really been done before, like powwow is usually recorded single mic in the middle of the drum kind of thing. And now to get split tracks of vocals and drumming and then even split tracks from the male and the female vocals, you know, particularly in the song "Sisters" and "Red Rhythm" where we're able to sample just the female back-up vocals.


WITNESS: But in powwow specifically, you don't ever hear just the woman's voice. So being able to deconstruct that part and pull it out and feature a song using just that female voice was something that we had never been able to do before.


CHAKRABARTI: Well, let's talk for a minute about politics because in just about every interview I've read, you've said that by existing and by doing what you're doing, it is a political act, just by being. So tell me more about that.

WITNESS: You know, as indigenous people in a colonial nation, everything has been done to stop us from being here today. So the fact that we are still here, alive and thriving, is a political statement.

CHAKRABARTI: But in your performances, you really bring that front and center. I mean, you know, even from what you choose to wear sometimes, right?



CHAKRABARTI: But let's be specific about what you - on the choose-to-wear front, for example. Like you wear what, T-shirts and baseball caps with - that use, you know, indigenous people as their mascots.

WITNESS: Yeah. I do wear a lot of the race as mascot kind of stuff. But for me, there's a flip there. You know, there's a way of saying, like, this is something that I'm going to own now. It still bugs me when I see a non-indigenous person wearing it though.


CHAKRABARTI: So thus far, the songs that we've talked about, it's that blend that you guys are putting together. But there's one song off your debut, self-titled album, "A Tribe Called Red," the song is called "Woodcarver," which adds yet another layer into it. So first of all, let's listen to a little of "Woodcarver."


A TRIBE CALLED RED: (Performing)

CHAKRABARTI: So this is your take on a true story. I mean, you're using actual police radio and newscast there about the death of a native woodcarver who was shot by Seattle police. Tell us more about what you were thinking when you put this together.

CAMPEAU: Yeah. Well, his name is John T. Williams, and he was, you know, a street-involved woodcarver in Seattle. The police officer stopped this man who was carving, who was obviously carving and gave him, I think, exactly 11 seconds and three warnings before he shot him three times. Lo and behold, a couple of months later, the court case got kind of thrown out and he got let go from the police force and that was all that happened to him. That was it. So that's when we got angry. So we put together this song, you know, just to show people what's happening right now.


CHAKRABARTI: Now when you've played for audiences that are primarily made up of, like, say, people of the First Nation, is the show different than maybe when you're playing for a more mixed group?

WITNESS: Definitely.


WITNESS: When we play those shows in places like Winnipeg or Saskatoon, you know, where we get 95, you know, percent indigenous crowd, it has a very different feeling. You know, the party really becomes more than anything, I think, about pride.

CHAKRABARTI: And so for them and actually even for non-native fans who come to see you, when the show's over, what do you hope stays with them when the party's over?

CAMPEAU: First and foremost, I just hope they had a good time. I hope they danced and got sweaty like most people do at our parties. And if they come back with an understanding of the political situation between First Nations and settlers, that's even better.


CHAKRABARTI: Well, Ian Campeau, also known as DJ NDN, thank you so much for joining us.

CAMPEAU: Thank you so much.

CHAKRABARTI: And, Bear Witness, pleasure to talk with you too. Thank you so much.

WITNESS: No, thank you.


CHAKRABARTI: Well, Sacha, Ian Campeau, Bear Witness and a third member, DJ Shub, altogether are A Tribe Called Red. Some pretty cool music.


And, in fact, I remember the day you did that interview. You said you were still dancing hours after you - yeah, and (unintelligible) studio.


CHAKRABARTI: It's hard not to move your feet when it goes into it.

PFEIFFER: Exactly. Exactly. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Sacha Pfeiffer.

CHAKRABARTI: I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.