A few years ago, I had the pleasure of chatting with A Tribe Called Red for an interview. The comment that stuck out most in my mind was when they claimed that no matter what a Native party is inherently political. Seems like an interesting choice of words and the longer you spend thinking about it (as a white man myself) the more questions it raises. While I feel like their ethos is the same, their shows have become a positive space to learning in a way that is accepting of everyone.
Arriving at the newly renovated Rebel (née Sound Academy) the Francisco Brothers were spinning dance tunes to the slowly arriving guests, which lead way to spoken word artist Saul Williams to capture the attention of the audience. With a booming voice and confidence that most people could only dream of, Williams spent the next thirty plus minutes reciting poetry to the crowd. Without knowing exactly the text he was speaking from, it made it difficult at times to follow the train of thought. In bursts certain stanzas would get the crowd cheering in agreeing with one line in particular getting the biggest cheers of the night “Disrupt the system now. I’m not asking you to do shit, but become it”. After some a capaella speaking a DJ joined him on stage to play subtle backing music to augment his words as he read from his US(A) book. DJ NDN who was watching from the VIP booths on the side cheered wildly throughout his set. The idea of a poet being the opening act for an EDM group playing at a venue like Rebel sounds made up, but only a group like A Tribe Called Red could have pulled it off, showing their ability to encourage education and expanding one’s mind.
This past year has been big for A Tribe Called Red. They released their third album this year, We Are the Halluci Nation, the best of their career so far. It has also been a big year because Native Issues seem finally to be taking center stage in Canada. Acts like Tanya Tagaq and Buffy Sainte-Marie, two First Nations women have won the Polaris Music Prize for the top album of the year in Canada in recent years. Gord Downie released a solo album called Secret Path, which chronicles the story of Chanie Wenjack a young First Nations boy who died running away from a residential school. Wenjack appears as a character on ATCR’s album too with John Trudell sharing his story. The show opened with the intro to the album that features the same name, which segued right into a pumped up Stronger with added emphasis on the bass line.
The three DJ’s of the group, NDN, Bear Witness and 2oolman work side by side behind a long table, and despite their huge popularity, the show never really seemed to be about the trio. Early on a group of break dancers from all ethnicities came out to perform for the crowd doing handstands, flairs, turtles and their best B-boy and B-girl moves. DJ NDN praised the dancers by asking the crowd to make some noise for the Halluci Nation, a tribe they created meaning “the tribe that they cannot see” who “see the spiritual in the natural”. Tribe mostly stuck to playing mixes of their own songs, but throughout the night played some other songs as well including hilariously, Informer by Snow.
It seemed like every few minutes a new set of guests would come out ranging from two women in traditional dresses and moccasins dancing with scarves to a hoop dancer to plenty of other kinds of dancers. They make going to an electronic show hard to dance to as you are so immersed in what is happening on stage. A few times we were reminded that because Toronto is a special place for them to perform in they had a few extra tricks up their sleeves. Lido Pimienta, who appears on their track The Light came out to perform. Pimienta who is a Columbian singer grunts and growls while singing in Spanish and is also a frequent performer at Tribe shows. DJ NDN was very excited to bring out the groups hero Tanya Tagaq, the Inuit throat singer who performed Sila. Tagaq is always fascinating to watch as she gracefully is able to tell the history of her people in a way most people have never seen before. Hearing the noises, she is able to create is a mind blowing tip as she can be soft and delicate or harsh and angry. American Native singer Jennifer Kriesberg was also brought out to perform The Muse continuing the parade of guest vocalists.
The ever present video imagery of Natives appearing in movies and television shows were shown, with a few touches of internationalism including a looping clip of the Haka being performed, a war dance done traditionally by Maori people from New Zealand, now frequently done before New Zealand All Black’s rugby matches to intimidate their opponents. During the encore all the dancers came back out to bow to the crowd and receive a deafening ovation as Shad was the last surprise guest who performed How I Feel. While most people don’t go to a show to learn lessons, A Tribe Called Red show does it in a very inclusive way, whether is is taking note of the racism present in Native warrior stereotypes in cartoons, being introduced to Inuit throat singing, seeing a hoop dancer become an eagle or just going to a club where everyone is welcome from all races, creeds, genders and sexual orientations can come together and have a great time.