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A Tribe Called Red gives voice to culture

By in Culture

It’s been an eventful year for Ottawa-based trio A Tribe Called Red. After releasing their latest album Nation II Nation this past May, the band began an international tour that carried over into 2014 which included a stop in Saskatoon on Feb. 19.

“Saskatoon is a regular stop of ours; we have a lot of fans here,” said Bear Witness, one of the three members of A Tribe Called Red.

The group formed after the three DJs hosted a monthly nightclub together, the Electric Pow Wow in Ottawa. They realized they had something different to offer and eventually created the band. Witness is one of the three founding members, joined by DJ Shub and DJ NDN.

DJ NDN, DJ Shub and Bear Witness of A Tribe Called Red mix powwow and dance music.

“There’s three of us in the group, so the influences are a wide range of stuff. We all bring something and I think that’s what makes the group so strong,” Witness said.

A Tribe Called Red mixes traditional powwow and dance music to produce an incredibly unique sound. The group has also added some new elements — including hoop dancers — into their performance for the tour.

The release of Nation II Nation marked a change in music for the artists as well.

“The first album was really more of a compilation of songs that we put out over a period of two years,” Witness said. “With Nation II Nation we sat down with the intent of making an album over a few months.”

The band signed on with record label Tribal Spirits to produce Nation II Nation and the company encouraged them to remix anything from its existing catalogue.

“It made a difference working with this collection of recorded music already,” Witness said.

Beyond music, A Tribe Called Red offers stimulating performances for their fans.

“We operate a little differently than a lot of DJs,” Witness said. “With us, it’s three DJs and we all play at the same time. We operate more like a band, passing the mix back and forth quickly and cutting on top of each other.”

Witness also emphasized the important role the crowd plays in translating their music into a show.

“The energy we have on the stage is really reflecting the energy of the crowd.”

A Tribe Called Red received five nominations and four awards this past year at the Aboriginal Peoples Choice Music Awards. The response from the community has been both substantial and inspiring for the group.

“It’s been amazing to watch how our music has been owned by the Indigenous community really quickly. If we weren’t getting that support from our home community then we wouldn’t be able to take our music across the world, ” Witness said.

“Watching that happen so rapidly in the Indigenous community makes us see that there is a real want for this, a real need for this and we’ve created something to represent them and they’ve accepted that.”

While their music incorporates traditional Indigenous elements, A Tribe Called Red has been able to expand to other audiences as well.

“What came as an even bigger surprise to us was to watch non-Indigenous people come and enjoy what we were doing with powwow music, because that wasn’t something that we expected at all,” Witness said. “It’s been amazing to watch.”

The group toured across North America and parts of Europe last year, and has plans to continue touring the globe with Nation II Nation.

“When we first went over [to Europe] we questioned it and asked ourselves why we were doing it. We were at the airport having this conversation and we started getting tweets and messages from fans who were saying, ‘Alright guys, go over there and show them who we are,’” Witness said. “It’s this idea that they were looking at us as ambassadors for who we are as Indigenous people.”

A Tribe Called Red has opened doors for cultural expression but the biggest part of this tour has been just putting the sound out to the public. Witness offered some advice to other aspiring Indigenous artists looking to break into the spotlight.

“Just go out and do it. Actual inspiration is only a small part of it. Talent again, small part of it,” Witness said. “But the biggest thing you can do as an artist is just getting out in the world and putting your 100 per cent into it.”

The band has started working on their third album and will continue to do so while they tour this year. A Tribe Called Red has already experienced enormous success, but Witness makes sure to stay grounded.

“There’s so much happening right now and there’s not a lot of time to stop and think about it,” Witness said. “Things are getting bigger and bigger, but you still just take it one day at a time.”

Visit for information on the band, tour dates and a free download of their first album.

Naomi Zurevinski / Culture Editor

Photo: Supplied

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