Sound Field


What Does Electric Pow Wow Sound Like?

Canadian DJ collective A Tribe Called Red combine Native American drum circle sounds with electronic music to create Electric Pow wow. Nahre Sol travels to Toronto to meet A Tribe Called Red to learn how they blend native sounds and electronic music. LA Buckner meets with Iron Boy drum circle in Minnesota to watch a live performance and learn about their sound.

AIRED: October 24, 2019 | 0:14:01

- So where are we going now?

- We are going to our--

- The cabin.

- The cabin?

(electric powwow dance music)

- This place is, we fell in love with it

when we started working here,

it's like this little hidden spot in the city.

- [Nahre] Electronic dance music has always been

fertile ground for the blending of musical genres.

Canadian DJs 2oolMan and Bear Witness,

collectively known as A Tribe Called Red,

combine the sounds of traditional native powwow drum circles

with electronic dance music to create something they call

electric powwow.

- We're here.

- [Nahre] I was able to sit in with A Tribe Called Red

as they started to work on a new batch of music.

- [2oolman] So it's a little bit of a tight squeeze

getting in here


- [Nahre] At a hard-to-find studio

on a residential street in Toronto.

(electric powwow music)

- [2oolman] I love this unit.

- [Nahre] So how did Tribe Called Red start?

- It all grew out of a club night.

- [Nahre] A club night?

- Yeah, so back in like 2008,

a few of us got together in Ottawa.

We didn't really know each other all that well

but just came together under the idea

that we're all Native DJs working in the city

and let's throw a party together.

The reaction that we got from our community was that,

you've started something, you've created this space for us,

and you have to keep doing it now.

- [Nahre] Did you feel pressure in any way?

- Not so much pre...

Well, I mean there was a really quick realization

that we were doing something

much bigger than we thought we were.

We thought we were just throwing a party

and would advertise to our community,

but really quickly we realized that

it meant a lot more to them than that.

That taking up space within the urban environment

as indigenous people is a difficult thing sometimes.

To actually have a community and a culture

that is urban and is indigenous, isn't new.

We've been here since these were forts and villages,

but our visibility has changed.

- [Nahre] You guys are pioneering then.

- Well, I mean-- - [Nahre] Parts of it?

- I've always said that we're part of a wave,

like we threw this party and got told

we had to keep doing it by people in the community

so we're always following that wave, not really leading it.

(electric powwow music)

- [Nahre] When you're creating new projects

do you keep in mind this cultural landscape,

this wave that you're talking about?

- I mean, I guess it's finding a balance

between those things.

Break it down into DJ terms, you're reading the room.

(electric powwow music)

- [Bear Witness] Our second album was called

Nation II Nation because we were producing it at a time

when there was a new movement happening in Canada

called Idle No More.

- A First Nations protest movement

is quietly spreading across the country.

- First Nations protestors gathered on Parliament Hill

once again, and--

- [Bear Witness] Indigenous people in Canada

all together stood up and said,

"We're not going to quietly let things happen anymore."

There was this huge influx of indigenous people in Ottawa

who came from all over the country to protest.

So that album, Nation II Nation,

it even got its name, Nation II Nation

because that's what we're calling for,

we're calling to have a conversation, a talk with Canada,

from the indigenous nation to the settler nation.

So, you know, that vibe,

everything that was happening

got put into the album.

(electric powwow music)

- [Nahre] The energy of a protest movement

is only one ingredient in their music.

A Tribe Called Red uses samples of native drum circles

as the basis for almost all of their music.

What started off as an experiment,

sampling drum sounds from powwow videos they found

on YouTube, has turned into a collaboration.

- [2oolman] So I was going to bring this up really quick.

(computer mouse clicking)

I asked 'em to give me different patterns,

so they gave us different patterns that they sing with.

(powwow drums playing)

So this is a sidestep groove, so it's a sidestep.

And then there's straight.

(computer mouse clicking) (powwow drums playing)

- [Bear Witness] The very first thing we ever did

with powwow music was just doing a a live mash-up.

And it's because we had a grass dance song that was open

at the beginning so you just had straight singing

and you could just loop that

and then threw a dubstep instrumental underneath it.

You know, it's like finding any other sample,

like finding a breakbeat that was like a clean break

that was super funky--

- [Nahre] Isolated.

- that you could sample that was isolated.

And it's slowly grown into us having this relationship

with the drum groups now, where they give us what we need.

(powwow drums playing)

- [2oolman] So it's hitting off the side of the drum,

so it's a stick.

- So those drums that you heard,

one of those is in almost every song that we make (laughs).

- [Nahre] So what is a drum circle?

LA went to Prior Lake, Minnesota to find out.

(powwow music)

- [LA] I met up with Iron Boy,

an inter-tribal drum circle based in Minneapolis.

Although they haven't collaborated with A Tribe Called Red,

they've been performing at powwows

all over the United States,

including what's considered the largest powwow in the world,

The Gathering of Nations in New Mexico,

where they were crowned champions

in the Northern Drum Contest in 2015.

(drumming and singing)

- I'm breathing fast, like...

A typical northern drum circle song

has a call-and-response structure

divided into pushups, or verses.

(drumming and singing)

The first lead will sing a line,

then the group will respond with a chorus.

Once the chorus is sung and repeated,

the next singer in the circle takes the lead

to start the second pushup.

Although the sound might feel traditional,

the members of Iron Boy write their own music,

like this song composed by member Charles Larrabee.

- For the most part, I try to visualize

the dancers dancing and just talk about their movements.

Like (speaking native language) is talking about

the women's long braids when they spin

you can see them flying.

- Y'all got chemistry so learning something new,

it happens quick, you know what I'm saying? It seemed like?

- Well, when there's something and I feel like it's worthy

then I'll send it to the boys.

And if it clicks, then we'll stick with it, you know?

- [LA] This is very similar to a jazz band setting

where we record the rehearsal, then we send it out

to all the homies and we listen to it in the car,

you know what I'm saying, we're driving

and then come back knowing your part.

Same, same kind of format.

- Basically when you have a song,

you kind of have these basic rules, but you try to

bend those rules as much as you can.

Like, contemporary music is going to

usually use a lot of words.

Old school is usually straight songs not many words

just because of there was a time up until 1978

everything was outlawed so really,

you kind of see this movement now.

A lot of people are moving back toward some of those ways,

like using words in a song and stuff like that,

a lot of language and taking pride in that language.

- [LA] In 1978, not that long ago, the US government

passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act,

which aimed to protect the rights

of Native Americans to practice their culture.

- Something that we value, our culture,

we value it so much that we're gonna carry this on

until we make our journey and we're gonna teach

as many young people as we can along the way.

It's a huge responsibility.

You know, this drum here is very, very, very, very sacred

to us and this represents a grandfather spirit.

The drum takes care of us, we take care of the drum.

(drumming and singing)

(electric powwow music)

- [Bear Witness] You know, instead of using, like,

airhorns or sirens like a lot of electronic music will

we use the calls, powwow calls.

(demonstrates powwow calling)

- [2oolman] Yeah, we got stuff like this.

- Stuff like that that we throw in.

(powwow call echoes)

- So that's like our airhorn. You know what I mean?

(electronic music)

- [Bear Witness] But it has the same effect.

You're playing to an indigenous audience,

those have the same effect.

People react to it the same way.

(imitates air horn blasting)

- It's so crazy.

I get people who hit me up all the time and they're like,

"Hey man, do you think you can

give me that sound you guys use?

"'Cause I'd really like to play it

"at like at a lacrosse game

"or something like that back home."

So it's like, they want to use that

as a goal horn, you know what I mean!


It's so weird!

But that's where we're at right now.

- [Bear Witness] Replacing the airhorns and that,

that's just a way of indigenizing the space that we're in.

- Yeah, we will add a ton of other instruments.

Anything we get our hands on, really.

(electronic effects playing)

- Like, it goes faster,


- Tim made a decision early on that he wanted all the risers

to be self-made, so it's a lot of stuff

that we messed around with in Calgary.

- We were in National Music Centre in Calgary

and they have just a bunch of synths, like a synth museum,

but they allow people to have residencies there.

They'll have access to,

basically to almost every single synth known

even the legendary TONTO.

(electronic music)

- [Nahre] This is TONTO,

or The Original New Timbral Orchestra.

It was created by Malcolm Cecil in the early 1970s.

The room-sized multi-timbral, polyphonic, analog,

synthesizer was used by many artists

including the Isley Brothers and Stevie Wonder.

Only one was ever made and it now lives in Canada

at the National Music Centre in Calgary, Alberta.

(computer mouse clicking)

- I can bring up to OG actually.

(powwow dance announcer calls) (powwow drums playing)

- [Nahre] I asked 2oolman to break down

some of the elements used in a track they were working on.

- So I'm just playing them through.

(powwow music plays)

(computer mouse clicking)

- [2oolman] I just added some drums to that.

(modified music plays)

- [2oolman] Yeah, so just added...

(modified music plays)

- [Nahre] One more element for the track was found

when member of Canadian Parliament Romeo Saganash

delivered a passionate speech on behalf of indigenous rights

to the House of Commons.

(electric powwow music)

- Why doesn't the Prime Minister just say the truth

and tell the indigenous peoples

that he doesn't give a (...) about their rights.

- Watching indigenous Twitter and Instagram and Facebook

explode as soon as that happened was like, okay,

this is definitely a moment

and I mean we felt that moment ourselves.

- You become a part of it.

- Yeah, you wanna do something with it, because, again,

like when we first started making this music

it was to make something that everybody could enjoy

and everyone can appreciate

but that would be instantly recognizable

and identifiable to indigenous people.

So to take a moment for indigenous people

and then weave it into a song, you know,

that's telling our fans that this is for you.

(eclectic powwow music)

- Has there ever been resistance from an older generation

that didn't understand

the combination of electronic music with powwow?

That it's different to them?

- Yeah, I mean, nobody has ever really told us

that we shouldn't be doing what we're doing,

but people who don't necessarily connect with it

have always said that they see the relevance

of what we're doing because it's connecting with youth.

So many of us didn't grow up having people

that represented us in the media, you know.

We all kinda go back to the few little things

that were there, you know, seeing Buffy Sainte-Marie

on Sesame Street was a huge one.

And I think one of the things

that we have an opportunity to do is start

to give that to a younger generation

that we are out here being indigenous on our own terms.

Not having to be boxed into something that isn't us.

(electric powwow music)

- [Bear Witness] We did a video for our song "Suplex"

about a native wrestler kinda making it on his own terms.

Next thing we knew after that video came out

all these parents were sending in these different photos

of their kids who had made their own luchador mask,

got them to cut the sleeves off of their jean jackets

to look like the wrestler in the video.

And so, kind of with us dreaming about what it

would have been like to have an indigenous representation

that was true to who we were growing up,

we had given it to a younger generation.

Just through our imagining it.

(electric powwow music)

- [2oolman] In a lot of ways that we make a lotta music

that we have to have a purpose for,

it has to service our community in some shape or form

or else it doesn't make sense to do it.

So that's what drives us to even create, to perform.

It's just, does it make sense for our community.

That's the thing.

That's our moral compass that we follow.

(electric powwow music)


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