Juno-nominated A Tribe Called Red happy to get the party started

Thursday, February 20, 2014

A Tribe Called Red

Feb. 21, 8 p.m. | Commodore Ballroom

Tickets: $25 | www.ticketweb.ca

The “congratulations” offered Ian Campeau is met with one of those great laughs that’s a genuine mix of disbelief, elation, humility and surprise.

This despite the fact that we’re two days after his Ottawa electronic and DJ collective A Tribe Called Red learned that it had earned itself a pair of nominations for the upcoming Juno Awards on the strength of the trio’s sophomore release Nation II Nation.

“It hasn’t really set in yet,” says Campeau, who watched the announcement live with his wife. “It’s really exciting, though.”

For those who’ve been paying attention to the band’s young but acclaimed career, it’s probably not much of a surprise.

They’ve already made themselves regulars on the Polaris Prize longlist, not to mention on critics’ year-end bests, and their following has increased steadily and sizably thanks to constant international and national touring, including a current one that brings them to the Hi-Fi Club Thursday night. Juno domination was the obvious next step.

Perhaps the only surprise is the categories in which the band is nominated, or rather the one in which they aren’t: Aboriginal Album of the Year. As an all-First Nations act who has previously won a handful of Aboriginal Peoples Choice Music Awards, it would seem a natural Juno category for them and, perhaps, a better opportunity to take home some hardware.

But Campeau (a.k.a. DJ NDN) says when it came time to enter Nation II Nation and themselves into the national fray they wanted to be judged entirely on their music and alongside their stylistic peers.

”We made a conscious decision not to apply for the Aboriginal award. It was just a personal choice of ours where we felt that if our music was going to be in competition we wanted to be in competition with the genres that are similar to ours and not necessarily because of our heritage and our background ... ,” he says.

“And you can’t really compare which album is better when you have an electronic album beside an alt rock album, you know what I mean. But here you are in the same category because we’re of the same background.

“We definitely don’t want to take away from anyone that’s nominated this year or in the future or even in the past. It was just something we felt we wanted to take a step back from.”

So they got their wish and find A Tribe Called Red going up against similar genre acts such as Blue Hawaii (featuring former Calgary musician and Braids member Raphaelle Standell-Preston) for the Electronic Album of the Year prize, while also competing against a somewhat more diverse crew in the Breakthrough Group of the Year category.

In any case, Campeau and his crew (Dan General and Bear Witness) view the nominations as something of a validation for the music they’re making, which incorporates elements of their culture into dance sounds they spin, as well as the possibility of discussing that culture and some of the issues that are important or unique to First Nations.

Their success has been important in the evolution of the band, which began as wanting to “just throw a party” with their Electric Pow Wow nights — he compares it to Hai Karate, the longtime Calgary club institution hosted by friends The Smalltown DJs — and turned into the more musical and socially significant outlet that it now is.

Campeau admits he’s always been always been aware and a champion of First Nations issues, but Tribe’s rising profile has allowed him the opportunity to give them a much-needed platform.

“With what A Tribe Called Red is doing we’re able to start conversations that need to be had about First Nations and not First Nations relationships here in Canada. A lot of people need to understand exactly what’s going on and just start talking to each other. And just start a conversation,” he says, noting that a lot of those conversations are about some of the lingering attitudes and stereotypes that are so ingrained in North American culture.

“People are listening to what we have to say. And it might be met with a lot of apprehension at first, but the conversation gets to happen. Non-First Nations fans are listening, too, and asking, ‘Well, why can’t I show up wearing a headdress to your show?’ Or (saying), ‘It’s a tradition that the Redskins are called the Redskins.’ And we’re able to talk about that and discuss how, yeah, it’s a tradition but your tradition is racist so we need to talk about is it a tradition worth having if it’s demeaning and marginalizing my race.

“It’s a really good conversation starter.”

Campeau has also done a little more than just talk, filing a human rights complaint late last year against an Ottawa-area football team that was using the Redskins name. The club ultimately agreed to drop the name and logo, but he understands that’s just one minor victory and that there’s more work to be done, especially when lazy and stupid people sneer at cultural sensitivity as political correctness, and resist change for selfish and ignorant reasons.

In fact, he wasn’t shocked to be told of Calgary’s Western Canada High School, which still rather inexplicably clings to its athletics team name the Redmen, complete with a logo of a First Nations man with grossly exaggerated features. But, where as his complaint was filed against a private league, Campeau believes that initiating common sense change at a publicly funded and attended school should be easier, or at the very least, an easy conversation to start.

“When it comes down to tax dollars, you’re able to bring it up with your MPs and others that it’s completely inappropriate to have schools promoting racism and not ... changing it just because it’s tradition — that seems to be the only answer people get when it’s confronted,” he says. “Hopefully things will change.”



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