W5 profiles “A Tribe Called Red” Juno nominations propel DJs into mainstream

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As a man of advancing age I have no business being in Chicago’s Lincoln Hall listening to new music on a chilly winter’s night.

It’s a medium-sized and beautifully restored venue on a street where in 1934 notorious bank robber John Dillinger was fatally shot by the cops. Tonight it is where three Canadian DJs will warm the crowd with their eclectic mix of rap, dubstep, house and pow wow. I’ve had to do a few google searches to pretend to know what I’m talking about.

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But the music is only part of what has made me curious about ‘A Tribe Called Red’.

They are hitting their creative stride just as a real conversation is starting to take hold in Canada about how we do better by Indigenous people.

Artists, as often happens, are leading the way. Gord Downie, Joseph Boyden, and new music from Quantum Tangle and William Prince (among others) are crossing into mainstream audiences. And that, more than all the conferences and reports, seems to be piercing the hearts of non-Indigenous Canadians.

Watching ATCR its clear they are highly skilled DJs and sound engineers. Let’s use their real names, not their DJ tags. Ian Campeau, Tim Hill and Ehren Thomas have defined a completely unique style of dance music by mixing the ancient rhythms and vocals of pow wow with the very modern beats that keep you dancing. And it works brilliantly.

They are nominated for three 2017 Juno Awards, including for their current concept album ‘We are the Halluci Nation’ which seeks to link the musical influence of colonized people worldwide.

They have also become heroes to Canada’s urban indigenous youth, who sometimes experience much broader cultural influences than more isolated rural youth. ATCR has punk, blues, and jazz performances in their personal histories, as well as a love of Shakespeare and even orange blossom special fiddling.

What’s perhaps even more surprising is the audience for A Tribe Called Red. It crosses ages, races and background, creating a pulsing mash up of people feeling the power of something ancient.

Lincoln Hall’s enormous speakers propelled the base lines out of their mixes, making the tribal drums a physical experience in your chest, and the pow wow singing something that swims around your head and elevates you to somewhere new. It is easy to lose yourself and experience the euphoria of the moment.

And that may be the most powerful aspect of their music. A chance to appreciate the purity of Indigenous-inspired music on a visceral level.

It’s a door-opening moment when hundreds of people, or in other cities the band has played in, thousands, are moving as one in joy and revelry.

Suddenly, off to the side of the dance floor, other conversations are being sparked. About Standing Rock. Residential Schools. And how connected everyone is feeling to something hundreds of years old and pure.

The band hasn’t had to lead people to those conversations, the awakening through dance music has invited them to spring spontaneously. That is perhaps the more important thing I discovered that is also new about listening to A Tribe Called Red: The good things that usually happen when the great music ends.

A Tribe Called Red – We Are The Halluci Nation (Official video)

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