A Tribe Called Red, “A Tribe Called Red”

This week we lost Earl Scruggs, Adrienne Rich, and Harry Crews. I’ve been feeling pretty low.

But the best thing to happen to me this week was seeing this post over at Native Appropriations about A Tribe Called Red, a DJ collective out of Ottawa. Here’s how they describe themselves:

In 2008, DJ’s NDN and Bear Witness founded A Tribe Called Red adding two-time Canadian DMC champ, DJ Shub to the crew in 2010. ATCR creates an never before heard sound made up of a wide variety of musical styles ranging from Hip-Hop, Dance Hall, Electronic, and their own mash-up of club and Pow Wow music, known as Pow Wow Step that is quickly gaining respect from all kinds of communities from all around the world. Electric Pow Wow is a monthly club night dedicated to showcasing Aboriginal DJ talent and Native urban culture and is aimed at creating a space for Aboriginal people. You can catch Electric Pow Wow every month on the second Saturday at Babylon nightclub in Ottawa, Canada.

A Tribe Called Red released their first (self-titled) album on Tuesday; I downloaded it on Wednesday and I’ve been listening to it pretty steadily ever since. While I’m the first to admit I’m not well versed in dubstep or in Native American music, I like the combination here, and A Tribe Called Red makes me want to know more about both. Like Adrienne at Native Appropriations, I also like the social commentary in A Tribe Called Red’s work.

Their track “Woodcarver” is about John T. Williams, a seventh-generation Ditidaht woodcarver who was shot and killed by Seattle police officer Ian Birk on August 30, 2010, while Williams, who was hard of hearing and holding his carving knife, was facing away from Birk. SPD ruled Birk’s actions unjustified, and Birk resigned from the department; the City of Seattle settled with Williams’s family for $1.5 million. Take a moment and look through photographs of the memorial a year after Williams’s murder, as well as the raising of the Williams memorial totem pole about six weeks ago.

The sampling that A Tribe Called Red does in “Woodcarver” is taken from the video of the moment Birk shot Williams. It’s taken from KING-5 news coverage of the shooting. It’s taken from reactions of standers-by. “Woodcarver” tells the story of a man murdered while practicing traditional art by someone who thought his tools were a threat.

The pictures show people grieving their friend and family member, and putting up a physical marker that lets others know that Williams lived and that his life and his art matter. “Woodcarver” is another way of doing the same thing.

So is A Tribe Called Red’s track “General Generations” — only it’s a little different. The sampling they do is from a 1930s wax-cylinder field recording of a Cayuga group; see the notes from the UCLA folks they worked with for more information. Some of the reading I’ve been doing this semester is on early folklorist and industry interactions with blues and country musicians (think John and Alan Lomax, Dorothy Scarborough, Ralph Peer), and I can’t (and don’t want to) lie about how completely gleeful it makes me that groups in 2012 are reclaiming and using music that in many cases — not all cases, but in many cases — was only deemed worthy of recording either as a curiosity or for its perceived monetary value, not because of any significance it may have had as part of a tradition that also belongs to people who are still living.

But that’s enough from me. The important takeaway points: I like listening to A Tribe Called Red and there’s a lot of important craft and thought underlying their work. The album is free. Download it, listen to it, and tell your friends. And your enemies, too.


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