On Friday, Nov. 10, as a part of Western Carolina University’s “Return from Exile” symposium exploring Native American art and culture, the electronic dance music DJ collective A Tribe Called Red performed at the Bardo Arts Center with an opening performance by students from New Kituwah Academy.
The academy is the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ Cherokee language immersion school and is run by Principal Kylie Shuler and Director Garrett Scholberg. The songs from the children’s performance were all sung in the Cherokee language, including songs like “The Man” by The Killers and “Happy” by Pharrell.
The kids were adorable. While being led by their teacher, who stood in front of the stage, they danced through the songs, wearing bright neon jackets and hats, and carrying flutes and small drums. All the children had character, but there were some who stood out by dancing in the opposite direction from the other students or simply shouting into one of the microphones while they were being led off-stage, which garnered some laughter from the audience.
After the opening performance, A Tribe Called Red took the stage. The crew is made up of Ian Campeau, Tim Hill and Ehren Thomas. Only Hill and Thomas, however, performed.
Hailing from Ottawa, Canada, the crew’s goal is to encourage and promote inclusivity and positive native identity through a blend of culture and experience. While their sound is mainly electronic and hip-hop, they include native sounds like traditional powwow drums and vocals to help carry out their message.
After forming in 2008, the trio has performed at festivals like Coachella, Bonnaroo, Afropunk, Osheaga and the New Orleans Jazz Fest, and became the first Indigenous group to win the Breakthrough Group of the Year award at the 2014 Juno Awards, which are essentially Canada’s Grammys. They have also toured in places like Australia and Europe.
During their set, the band included indigenous vocals and drums in their music, but they also had visuals projected on a screen behind them. The visuals were of Indigenous peoples, mainly Native Americans; some were recognizable from popular media like “Back to the Future” and “Thundercats”-style animations, as well as video of Native Americans dancing and soccer players in New Zealand performing the traditional Maori haka dance to intimidate the opposing team.
Though the auditorium at Bardo Arts Center was a very different venue from a place like the Orange Peel in Asheville or a festival location, the DJs managed to keep the audience entertained, as some people were dancing--and even breakdancing--off to the side of the audience.
The crew was not the only part of the entertainment, though. There were three dancers who performed in front of the DJs, dancing all together at first, then each would dance solo. They each wore outfits synonymous with hip-hop dancers, but each had some Native American element in their hair, on their head, on their clothes and in their dance.
Toward the end of the concert, each dancer donned an entire traditional Native American pow wow outfit to match A Tribe Called Red’s music, and engaged with the audience by initiating rhythmic claps or hand waving. Several of the children from the opening act were also brought up on stage to dance, along with some members of the audience.
Even though the venue might have been awkward for an electronic dance music set, A Tribe Called Red was an incredible and fun concert, with a lovely mix of indigenous art, culture and contemporary music. Their awards were much earned, and their message of inclusion, indigenous culture and keeping in touch with your roots is important for everyone, regardless of nationality or race.