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Ottawa trio turns up the volume on indigenous voices

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 1/12/2016 (1027 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The word ‘essential’ has been used to describe We Are the Halluci Nation, the third album from Ottawa’s pioneering powwow-step collective A Tribe Called Red. ‘Important,’ too.

The album, which came out in September, is both. It is, in many ways, the album we need right now — it’s urgent, vital, political, and it makes you want to dance.

But there’s another word that DJ NDN (Ian Campeau), 2oolman (Tim Hill) and Bear Witness would use to describe We Are the Halluci Nation: collaborative.

The album features a stacked team of guest artists, including Inuk throat singer/experimentalist Tanya Tagaq, veteran rapper Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def), poet/MC Saul Williams, Colombian visual artist/musician Lido Pimienta, Australian progressive roots outfit OKA, Swedish-Sami singer Maxida Marak and Winnipeg-based Anishinaabe singer-songwriter Leonard Sumner, to name just a few.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 1/12/2016 (1027 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The word ‘essential’ has been used to describe We Are the Halluci Nation, the third album from Ottawa’s pioneering powwow-step collective A Tribe Called Red. ‘Important,’ too.

The album, which came out in September, is both. It is, in many ways, the album we need right now — it’s urgent, vital, political, and it makes you want to dance.

But there’s another word that DJ NDN (Ian Campeau), 2oolman (Tim Hill) and Bear Witness would use to describe We Are the Halluci Nation: collaborative. 

The album features a stacked team of guest artists, including Inuk throat singer/experimentalist Tanya Tagaq, veteran rapper Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def), poet/MC Saul Williams, Colombian visual artist/musician Lido Pimienta, Australian progressive roots outfit OKA, Swedish-Sami singer Maxida Marak and Winnipeg-based Anishinaabe singer-songwriter Leonard Sumner, to name just a few.

But one collaborator stands out in particular: the late native American activist, poet, author and musician John Trudell, whose voice opens the album with a reading of his titular poem. Trudell didn’t just give We Are the Halluci Nation its name. He gave it its raison d’etre.

"It wasn’t until we started working with John that we knew what the record’s shape would be like," says Hill over the phone from somewhere in British Columbia, fresh off a stretch of sold-out shows. "He gave the album its identity and home. The rest of the album came easy after that. Everything we collected over two-and-a-half years seemed to sit perfectly in that world he’d created for us."

Hill says Trudell was always on A Tribe Called Red’s list of dream collaborators, and he feels really blessed they got the chance to work with him. Trudell died last December.

"We got to build a real friendship with him. He gave us guidance. In his last days, he gave us his time to just sit down and talk with us. We are forever grateful for his friendship, too. He was a great guy."

Hill is grateful, too, that the group had the opportunity to work with indigenous artists from all over the world. The cultural exchange that took place over the making of the album left an indelible impression on him.

"When we got to work with the Sami artists in Norway, we found out they deal with pipelines the same way we do in North America," he says. "In Australia, they went through similar things. So we relate on a colonization level. We’ve been relating on culture a lot more. To see that, as far away from home as I can be, and to know that that culture exists — it’s almost like frequencies. It’s something unmeasurable."

MATT BARNES</p><p>A Tribe Called Red</p>

MATT BARNES

A Tribe Called Red

 

A Tribe Called Red has always been a voice for indigenous people, from back when they started hosting their monthly dance party, Electric Pow Wow, at Ottawa’s Club Babylon. They’ve used their platform to raise awareness and speak out on issues that matter to them, whether it’s filing a human-rights complaint about an Ottawa football club using the name Redskins or asking concertgoers to not wear headdresses to their shows. In 2014, ATCR cancelled their performance at the opening ceremony for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, concerned about the way indigenous human-rights issues were depicted in the museum.

In interviews, they are asked about everything from the protests at Standing Rock to a certain racist logo belonging to a certain Cleveland baseball team. And they are happy to discuss those issues.

"When we do interviews and travel, we always have to represent for our people," Hill says. "We’re in, like, a MuchMusic interview, and people will ask us questions about all these native issues, or just history of everything we went through — we live this life every day. It’s not a burden. It’s something we were chosen to carry."

Hill says the conversation is changing. He’s encouraged by Canadians who seem to want to learn and understand, who want to call out their own ignorance and biases. "This has never happened before in my life," he says. "Someone calling out their ignorance right in front of me — and they don’t have to."

A Tribe Called Red is a big part of that shift, along with many other artists who are fostering reconciliation through art, whether it’s Gord Downie and Joseph Boyden honouring the memory of Chanie (Charlie) Wenjack with Secret Path, or Tanya Tagaq forcing people to pay attention to the erosion of Inuit culture and missing and murdered indigenous women with her latest album, Retribution.

Hill says it’s an exciting, scary time right now, but he’s cautiously optimistic that reconciliation isn’t just a buzzword. He’s thrilled, too, that people aren’t just enjoying We Are the Halluci Nation. They get it, too.  

"I feel like, as a native person, for years — as long as I can remember — my voice wasn’t the loudest," he says. "Or my voice wasn’t really heard. In this day and age with what’s going on right now, especially with what Gord Downie and Joseph Boyden are doing, we’re being asked these questions. People are asking us questions — hard questions — on mainstream television. I think people are just ready to know."

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @JenZoratti

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti
Columnist

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.

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