If there’s a dress code in place for next weekend’s Squamish Valley Music Festival, it’s probably much like the old Boy Scout motto: be prepared. Days will be hot, nights will be cool, and any Vancouverite knows that the current drought won’t last forever, so rain gear is probably a sensible option.
Just leave the headdresses and war paint at home.
At least that’s the advice A Tribe Called Red’s Ian “DJ NDN” Campeau has been giving his act’s non-Native followers. In an undeniably dodgy show of solidarity, some listeners have been turning up at the Ottawa trio’s shows in faux-aboriginal regalia. Campeau and his fellow producers Dan “DJ Shub” General and Ehren “Bear Witness” Thomas appreciate the support, but recently caused a minor controversy by asking that fans stop short of cultural appropriation.
“You don’t have to dress in a mockery of a culture to say that you’re supporting it,” Campeau reports, reached on his cellphone on the way home from a show in Brooklyn, New York. “If you go to a concert, like if you go see A Tribe Called Quest, you’re not going to show up in blackface to show how much you appreciate African-Americans in the U.S.
“That’s a really easy comparison,” he adds with a wry laugh, “but people don’t seem to get it.”
As urban aboriginals, the three musicians tend to favour T-shirts, tats, and ball caps, but on their Polaris Prize–shortlisted Nation II Nation they draw on their cultural heritage by showcasing the music of several First Nations drum groups. Working with tracks sourced from the Tribal Spirit label, they’ve added sequenced beats and synthesized textures to powwow-style percussion and chanting, and the result is a wildly effective blend of the traditional and the futuristic.
“Powwow music is made to make people dance, so all we really did was mash up dance music with dance music,” Campeau explains. “That’s how they were so easily married.”
The point, he continues, is to make a kind of “soundtrack to the urban aboriginal experience” that honours a traditional lifestyle, but that also recognizes Native communities in large cities all across Canada.
“It’s different than growing up on reserves and stuff like that, because here in an urban setting it’s not all one nation,” Campeau notes. “Like, on my reserve, it would be all Ojibwas, while the two other guys in A Tribe Called Red are both Cayuga, Six Nations. But in Ottawa we have lots of Inuit; we have the Algonquin reserve, which is pretty close; we also have a Mohawk reserve nearby. So it’s very, very diverse.”
Not only does A Tribe Called Red’s hybrid sound offer urban aboriginals something to rally round, it’s also a celebratory corrective to earlier directions in nontraditional Native music.
“We never really had music to look up to that wasn’t sad,” Campeau says. “If you were an aboriginal artist in an urban setting, you were a country singer, a rapper, or a blues singer, and all of those different styles of music come from a place of sadness or anger. But what we’re doing with EDM, it’s more of a fun time.”