Throughout the history of popular music, many of the world's greatest recording artists were those who managed to seamlessly fuse two or more completely different sounds.
A Tribe Called Red has only been around for five years, but the Ottawa trio has already managed to pull off this very unusual trick. By combining traditional powwow vocals with electronic music, they've created a celebratory new sound that is both definitively Canadian and unlike any aboriginal music that came before it.
"None of us grew up on a reserve. We're all urban. So there was never anything that reflected us, I felt, growing up, in a positive sort of way," says Ian (DJ NDN) Campeau, one of the co-founders of A Tribe Called Red, which performs twice at the Winnipeg Folk Festival on Friday.
"You had rappers, for sure, (making) angry, sad sort of music that comes from a place of aggression. And you had blues and country singers, also playing a sad sort of music, but there was nothing that positive like dance music is. Dance music is more happy than rap or blues or country."
In 2008, Campeau and fellow DJ Bear Witness organized what was supposed to be a one-time party aimed at the young First Nations community in Ottawa. They put up posters on university campuses and played a set of tunes that included a few powwow-electronic mashups.
The response was immediate and overwhelming: There was a huge, pent-up demand for dance music aimed at an aboriginal audience, even though that wasn't the sole target.
"There are all kinds of cultural-specific parties in Ottawa. There are Jamaican parties and Korean parties and we wanted to do something like that for the First Nations population," Campeau recalls. "It was an amazing turnout. What happened was students came in from isolated communities in northern Ontario and rural Quebec, who never felt safe or comfortable going out into club situations in the city where they would have a kind of culture shock."
The one-off electric-powwow night turned into a monthly party. After DJ Shub joined the group, A Tribe Called Red began to create music of its own.
"Bear and I just started mashing up powwow music over dubstep. When Shub joined in 2009, we started producing music all together, so we weren't just mashing it up," Campeau says. "That's when the music really started taking off."
Campeau isn't boasting. A Tribe Called Red's revelatory sound has taken the trio across North America and earned the group prestigious slots at both the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and South by Southwest in Austin. In June, they earned a spot on the Polaris Prize long-list -- the premiere critical honour in Canada -- for their second album, this year's Nation II Nation.
The key to the group's success is authenticity: Musical fusion tends to fall flat if the artist in question is not steeped in the cultures of the two sounds he or she attempts to blend. Campeau, a member of Nipissing First Nation, grew with powwow music all around him -- and actually sang from age nine to 13 -- before he started DJing in Ottawa. Hence the seamlessness of the fusion.
At first, A Tribe Called Red melded powwow tracks with their own beats. They now work with powwow label Tribal Spirit Music, which has opened its entire catalogue of traditional music to the trio in exchange for having access to the group's remixes.
This collaboration has changed the way powwow music is recorded. "Typically, it's one boom mike over the drums and that picks up everybody," says Campeau. "Now, for the first time, we have complete a cappellas for powwow, which I had never heard before.
"We're able to make songs with just the vocals and we don't have to match them up with the timing of the drums to make it sound better. Our creativity is unhinged."
A Tribe Called Red's next album involves collaborations with vocalists, including Winnipeg rapper-journalist Wab Kinew. In addition to refining its sound, the trio is on a mission to modernize the conception of what it means to be an urban aboriginal.
"We're trying to show everybody we're not this thing in the past. We're here today as fully functional members of society," says Campeau, arguing many Canadians still conceptualize First Nations in feathers and buckskins. "When I say, 'Think of an Indian,' you're not going to think of me in a hoodie and ballcap, right?"
When told that would, in fact, be the average conception of a young aboriginal male in Winnipeg, where roughly one in nine people have some indigenous ancestry, DJ NDN laughs.
"Winnipeg would be a little more exposed to it," he says. "It's different in Ottawa."