With synthetic sounds falling like lightning and basslines pounding with thunderous intensity, a rainstorm of possibly now all-too-similar “EDM” sonics are at the vanguard of mainstream progressive music. However, if in attendance at Tropicalia on Wednesday evening, a different storm – one caused by pulse pounding organic experimentation – was the new wave caused by last year’s torrential downpour of dance from Canada’s “Electric Pow Wow” master trio A Tribe Called Red.
There’s a “back to basics” movement afoot in dance music. Somewhere around the time that DC-to-LA transplant Dave Nada invented screwed reggaeton-meets-house cousin moombahton, the indie mainstream unearthing of DJs and producers infiltrating the dance marketplace with Afro-Latino, Carribean, Asian/Pacific Rim and American Indian/Native sounds began in earnest. From recent Red Bull Sound Clash participants to Uproot Andy and Geko Jones, from NYC’s Que Bajo party to Shawn Reynaldo and Oro11’s Latin-flavored Bersas Discos Records and more, there’s a definite movement back to modern dance music’s organic roots with current flourishes. However, as a sold-out crowd at Tropicalia learned, the insistent pounding of A Tribe Called Red’s tribal drums – as well as the DJ trio’s technical talents – may take this movement to the next level.
Opening were the duo of DJs Rat and Mafe from DC’s Maracuyeah party. For two years they’ve provided an excellent counterpoint to moombahton’s mainstream and populist rise. Organic roots feel one way when wasted dudebros and neon-painted party girls are jumping up and down to Tittsworth and Alvin Risk’s “Pendejas,” but when you see pockets of couples in the shadows of multi-colored fluorescent lighting salsa dancing to cumbia and nobody popping a molly and sweating, it’s an entirely different and appreciated feel.
In three hours’ time, DJs NDN, Bear Witness and Shub played music that struct passionately at the core of the entire room. There’s something about intrinsically knowing how to manipulate tom tom drums that feel like the Earth’s heartbeat against bold synthetic noise that takes people to a strange, yet fully psychologically and physically engaged emotional space. There are tracks, like their clubby banger “Native Puppy Love” and much of their latest album Nation II Nation that invoke pop-friendly dance and peak-hour bangers. But when you hear warbling native vocals, the unique melodies – and again, those drums – it paralyzes the bodies in a room, turning a party into a heavier thing: a collective sea of positive vibes.
At certain points of the evening, the action became so wild that it defied typical definitions of dance parties. At various points, Tropicalia revelers sang along to Paul Revere and the Raiders’ “Indian Reservation,” remixes of the theme to popular ’80s PBS program “Reading Rainbow” and the theme to ’80s comedy “The Three Amigos.” Yes, it was certainly oh-so weird, but when DJ Shub – a two-time Canadian DMC champion – is dropping the tracks, it feels oh so right.
Possibly more intriguing were the moments when the group’s politics hit home, yet didn’t pervasively invade the room. After all, these are three politically-aware “First Nation” natives in the home of the NFL’s Washington Redskins, so it was bound to happen. At a certain point, trap-masters TNGHT’s “Higher Ground” was dropped against imaging of face-painted wildman classic pro wrestler the Ultimate Warrior on a large screen behind the DJs. Throughout the night, pop culture images with potentially racist-to-American Indians/Natives overtones played behind them, but it was at this moment that the notion of three men with talent to rise above nearly four centuries of stereotyping became apparent. When A Tribe Called Red spin tracks, any notions that these are your grandparent’s “injuns” are immediately steamrolled. A Tribe Called Red represent one of those rare-to-date moments in our nascent post-racialism where old stereotypes are rendered entirely useless and we openly welcome a brand-new racial and cultural ideal.
At a time when dance music’s insistence on experimentation and re-creation lead to so much eventual synergy of all sounds, it’s important to have DJs and producers like A Tribe Called Red both making and playing music. In being fiercely personal, organic and historic – yet entirely modern – it proves that the future, while truly exciting can also be truly progressive.