Aboriginal Music and the Juno Awards

Suzanne  -  Apr 07, 2014  -  , , , ,  - 

A Tribe Called Red – the wicked-in-the-best-way Ottawa-based electric powwow group – won a Juno Award this month for Breakthrough Group of the Year for their CD “Nation II Nation.” In so doing, they have made history: they are the first Aboriginal group to win a Juno outside the Aboriginal music category.

Composed of DJ Bear Witness (Bear Thomas), DJ NDN (Ian Campeau), and DJ Shub (Dan General), A Tribe Called Red samples powwow music and pairs it with dance beats to create a contemporary Aboriginal sound they call “powwow step.” The band was nominated for Canada’s prestigious Polaris Prize in 2013 – the prize, which is judged by music critics, recognizes “albums of the highest artistic integrity, without regard to musical genre, professional affiliation, or sales history” – and was also nominated in the Electronic Album of the Year category at this year’s Junos.

As DJ NDN told CBC News, the band decided not to submit their album in the Aboriginal Album of the Year category. “We felt we wanted to compete for an award because of our music and not our ethnicity,” Campeau said. “Our album is an electronic album and we’d be up against someone like George Leach, who has a rock album. You can’t say one album is better than the other because they’re completely different genres.”

Aboriginal musicians were once almost unknown at the Junos. Although Saskatchewan-born Cree singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie received an Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1983 for “Up Where We Belong,” she had never been acknowledged by the Canadian music industry until she established the “Music of Aboriginal Canada” award at the Junos in 1992. (She then went on to win three Junos.)

A Tribe Called Red at the Red Bull Studios in London, England (Athena Anastasiou)

Dragonfly remembers being at a house on Toronto’s Palmerston Avenue that year, at a reception for Elizabeth Penashue and other members of the Sheshatshiu Innu community in Labrador – who were protesting low-level military flight testing on Innu territory – when actor Monique Mojica entered the room and said, “We got it! We’ve got a category at the Junos now!” A round of applause quickly followed, because this was a pretty huge thing in 1992. There were those of us who wondered why Aboriginal musicians needed to be segregated from other Canadian musicians, but that part of the discussion lost steam as most people just seemed happy to finally be acknowledged. (In a nice bit of circular, oh-so-Aboriginal magic, we should point out that Mojica is DJ Bear Witness’s mom.)

The U.S.-based Grammy Awards deals with Aboriginal musicians and music in a much different way. If you’re an Aboriginal musician – such as Grammy winner Buffy Sainte-Marie – then you compete alongside all the other nominees in your music genre or category. If you’re a musician playing Aboriginal music, then you compete against other musicians playing Aboriginal music in the Best Native American Music Album of the Year category. Over the years, this has led to mainstream America discovering many traditional forms of Aboriginal music, including the hand drumming of Canadian round dance group Northern Cree, which has won a total of six Grammy Awards.

Some people – including Mohawk musician Kinnie Starr, who also declined to have her latest album entered into the Juno Aboriginal category – believe that the Juno category isn’t a contemporary reflection of the place of Aboriginal musicians in the Canadian music industry. However, Starr acknowledges that the category was “instrumental for creating that safe place for indigenous musicians” who may not have many industry contacts.

DJ NDN (Ian Campeau), DJ Shub (Dan General), and DJ Bear Witness (Bear Thomas) of A Tribe Called Red

Dragonfly doesn’t buy into the “safe place” argument. The Junos aren’t “safe” for pre-colonial Aboriginal music (Northern Cree has yet to be recognized at the Junos). And A Tribe Called Red was nominated for the Polaris Prize before they had any industry contacts and before most Canadians had ever heard of them.

By rejecting the Aboriginal category at the Junos, A Tribe Called Red is playing in the big sandbox with the other boys and girls. They don’t need a “safe place” to know that their music is good enough to be judged on the world stage.


To hear “Electronic Powwow” by A Tribe Called Red, check out this YouTube fan video. As the video maker points out in the comment section, “This is what contemporary Aboriginal music sounds like in Canada. The video juxtaposes powwow stereotypes with water skiing (the most random thing I could think of). Imagine if aliens landed and all they saw was a water skiing show in Florida, and they decided that’s what all white culture is about. Now imagine people watching a powwow, and deciding that’s what all ndn culture is about. Same thing. Latter as wrong as the former. Miigwech, A Tribe Called Red for putting out such amazing stuff!”

Click here to view A Tribe Called Red’s 2011 video “Woodcarver,” which uses police dashcam footage and original music and images to tell the story of John T. Williams, a Nuu-chah-nulth man who was shot by a Seattle police officer in 2010. The video premiered at the 2011 ImagineNATIVE Film + Video Festival.

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