Feature: Pow Wow Step
My neighbour’s having sex. It’s a harsh autumnal night in Stockholm, rain-slicked windows with clinging leaves mirror a sky in its shade of tinfoil. It’s as Bergman directed it; the mere thought of reproduction seems like a defiance of evolution. Unless you’re a ferret.
The sound of them doing it paints such a vivid picture in my mind that I misspell A Tribe Called Quest in my Google search. This opens up a brand new world, where broadbent men with guitars, shoegazing hipsters and indie kids fear to tread.
On their blog, A Tribe Called Red describe themselves as creating "a never before heard sound made up of a wide variety of musical styles ranging from Hip-Hop, Dance Hall, Electronica, and their own mash-up of club and Pow Wow music, known as Pow Wow Step”. I click on the song 'Red Skin Girl' and this is what happens.
You know the place where music comes from. The origin of everything you can hum, the note that vibrates in tune with the lullabies that Keith Richard’s mother used to sing. The actual soul of music (or blues, if you’re Keith’s mum). Well, this isn’t it.
Bear Witness, DJ Shub and Dee Jay NDN create a sound so complex and furious, that listening to it is like performing a group task with a jaguar. I don’t understand anything. And I don’t care. Their remix of 'Red Skin Girl' by Northern Cree is high-pitched chanting in clouds of pink mace, traditional percussion raining down like bullets over Major Lazer dancehall and tropical Ghislain Poirier bass lines. Here’s the ghost of M.I.A.'s 'Boyz' and even a hint of Rainbow Arabia being poured into the mix. I’ve listened to it on repeat for days. I can’t help myself.
And their sound’s got that key ingredient that you will love it for: Everyone you know will hate it. Your friends will find it appalling, calling it seagulls with bongo’s, MTV referred to it as merely “Sick tribal chanting” and the National Post called it “Aboriginal cries”. They just don’t understand. Remind you of anything? Punk.
In sampling references to native people from pop songs, like 'I’m An Indian Too', they reclaim this stereotype and make it their own. Just like people do by wearing clothes with the logos of the Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves. Just as Strummer, Rotten et al did in Shepherd’s Bush by shoving safety pins through the preconceived idea of what rock n roll should be.
This is a highly political band. By documenting their reality in a DIY fashion, they’re influencing not only people from the native community in their hometown Ottawa. Even major politicians attend their events, know as Electric Pow Wow. These are club nights celebrating urban culture. Or simply: people dancing their hearts out. The huge events attract large crowds – with the band members cutting over one another in front of live mixed video on big screens.
But the first Pow Wow Step was a small one. As a kid back in the eighties, Bear Witness went to Pow Wows where he saw break dancing blend in with the native tradition. And this is actually what ATCR is all about: using old rhythms in a new context. In doing so they challenge us to question our preconceptions.
And even though their music has little to do with Otis Redding or Jackie Wilson – it’s undeniably soul.
Check out the video for 'Red Skin Girl' here:
You can download their self titled album for free here.