It's National Aboriginal Day when I finally get a chance to chat with DJ Bear Witness, one of the trio that make up A Tribe Called Red, and the Ottawa native is already in the midst of what he says will be a non-stop summer. The day before Bear Witness, Ian "DJ NDN" Campeau and Dan "DJ Shub" General were holed up with the CBC's Jian Ghomeshi after hearing news about a second Polaris long-list nomination for their new album Nation II Nation—the first came last year on the heels of the debut self-titled album—which puts the powwow step creators at two for two. Not bad for a group that got its start on the underground Ottawa club scene, throwing niche electric powwow parties, unsure of how their new brand of electronic music that fuses traditional aboriginal drumming and singing with fierce dance hall beats might be received.
"I can't believe it's happening again this year, really" says Bear Witness. "I mean, it's pretty reaffirming to know that our second album is really getting that kind of a welcome." Reaffirming maybe, but not surprising. Nation II Nation takes the foundation that A Tribe Called Red laid and doubles down with a more chill and nuanced feel, though still retaining the energy that's propelled them into the spotlight. For this album ATCR teamed up with the Montreal label Tribal Spirit, who gave the guys access to its entire library and made a few multi-track recordings for the trio which allowed the DJs to isolate and lift the drumming and vocal tracks—and separate the men from the women—which they hadn't been able to do before as usually everyone sings into a single mic, the men sitting in a circle around the drum, and the women standing behind. Two of the songs created this way, "Sisters" and "Red Riddom" (featuring Nova Scotia's Eastern Eagle drum group) are more vocally-focussed than anything they've done before, and the result is completely enthralling.
"There was a lot of pressure," says Bear Witness about the follow up, "like when you've started something new and wondering, you know, 'Is this going to carry on? Are people really going to get it? And are we going to be able to get our message across even better with our second try?'" This particular brand of concern naturally follows the creation of a whole new genre and a wildly successful debut, but for ATCR, message is key.
Even as we talk, also in Ottawa, a group of First Nations activists march on Parliament as part of what they're calling Sovereignty Summer, an off-shoot of the Idle No More movement and just one more symptom of a nation's unrest that escalated with the government's omnibus Bill C-45 which targeted constitutional aboriginal treaty rights, but was only one facet of a frustration that's been simmering on slow burn for years. The fight is currently finding support all over North America, and igniting especially in youth and urban aboriginals who often are invisible to the public eye. ATCR's inherently political electronic music is just part of the fire.
"It's a community that tends to get ignored or pushed aside," says Bear Witness. "But really what we're doing is creating a soundtrack for what's already going on and especially when you're talking about urban aboriginal people—they're one of the fastest growing demographics in Canada, and so there's a real culture that's coming out of that right now that we're part of the expression of."
It's not easy being an urban aboriginal, at times isolating and often erasing, you're in a constant battle against the status quo and stereotypical images masquerading as identity—you only need to take a look around to see battles waged everywhere: the fight against sports team mascots, cultural appropriation on the covers of magazines and sauntering down runways, themed parties that never seem to go out of style, stereotypes on the big screen—it's everywhere and getting old. Which is why, taking control of our own images and our own stories is so vital—never more so than now in the digital age. This is something Bear Witness can attest to. He comes from a family of artists, produces ATCR's music videos and has made reclaiming stereotypes a lifelong project. "I grew up surrounded with these kind of ideas of ways of working with that kind of imagery and content, so it's something that I was always really aware of," he says referring to using the stereotypical imagery of popular fashion and sports logos. "There needs to be a discussion. When you just go in and denounce stuff, take them away, and put them away then never talk about them again, there's not a lot of progress there. All you've done is erased something. I want to create discussions around these things. I want to take them out, I want them to be examined and discussed, you know, so we really move somewhere with it...let's talk about why it's wrong, and let's get that out there, in a way where people can learn from it.
"I try to explain it as much as I can from my perspective—which is just to say that I've found ways to turn this imagery around, to turn these misrepresentations around and give them another life and turn it into something positive for myself, and something empowering for myself."
The videos that Bear Witness creates for ATCR are art projects in themselves, inspired by pop culture, nostalgia and real powwow footage. The result is almost psychedelic renderings that are hypnotically paired with movie and news clips—highlighting what Bear Witness deems the stubbornness of media, "they keep on releasing the same one-dimensional stereotypical racist imagery," he says laughing, "that's a huge inspiration of mine." The self-professed media junkie has a huge collection of movie and TV clips just waiting for the right home—where with the right song and the right audience, it might just come together perfectly. "A lot of it is, you know, using this imagery to get exactly that effect out of people—you know, like 'Oh yeah, right, that was racist' or 'Oh, I loved that scene when I was a kid, but oh yeah, now I realize that it was racist.' That's kind of the effect that I go for, for people—especially for people outside of the aboriginal community—let them realize the racism in their own lives without having to tell them that they're racist. Make the connection between things from their own experience."
It's a benevolent reaction to something that could verge so easily into angry territory. The patience ATCR has for its fans and their growing pains is never so clear than at a live show when a new group of people show up in war paint. "In a lot of ways there's an opportunity—an opportunity for somebody to get a bit of an education," he says, "it's been handled in a number of different ways at our shows, most recently when we played in Boston, there was a bunch of people who showed up in headdresses and war paint and such and..." he pauses, laughing. "It was our audience who dealt with them." Another time, in Toronto, a similar group of people made it through the entire night without incident. "It was surprising, nothing happened to them through the whole night, you know, I kind of wanted to escort them out of there, but it wasn't until the photographs came up the next day that that whole conversation blew up on Facebook and people got really angry, on both sides...but when it cooled down, the discussion was able to be had, and the people who did show up in war paint eventually got the message that what they were doing wasn't being respectful and why it was inappropriate and a couple of them wrote apologies...that's why it's a dangerous thing, right? Because, if we're constantly on both sides being angry nobody's learning."
It's a learning curve that the majority of ATCR fans are well-versed in, and have been since the first electric powwow they hosted in Ottawa, a monthly dance party that's always sold out because although they might have had one thing in mind when they started creating mash-ups for their community, ATCR is undeniably danceable. "The original shows, we did promote directly to the aboriginal community, but we've always had a really mixed crowd in Ottawa and that's part of what's made it so strong," says Bear Witness. "Because we made this party to be inclusive for aboriginal people and everybody showed up, which was kind of awesome."
The guys are in town for two Halifax Jazz Fest shows, making an appearance at Evolve and Osheaga before continuing on the festival circuit. You can expect another album early next year—a collaborative project on Pirates Blend, that will allow ATCR to act as producers for a number of different friends and artists, not exclusively aboriginal, that they've been wanting to work with. And then? Another album will equal another Polaris nomination, I imagine. DJ Bear Witness just laughs.
A Tribe Called Red w/ The Extremities
Friday, July 5 at 6:30pm, $12/$10
w/ Oddisee & Good Company,The Extremities
Saturday, July 6 at 10:30pm, $18/$20
The Marquee Ballroom
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