Like too much of the life, culture, traditions, and beliefs of those who lived on this continent long before European settlers began arriving by boat, the music of indigenous people has probably been lost on many Americans or Canadians.
But the efforts of an electronic music outfit from way up north have helped change that over the last decade.
The Halluci Nation, formerly known as A Tribe Called Red, creates mind-blowing dance music by blending what has been described as First Nations powwow-step with electronica and a variety of styles from different parts of the world.
As proven by a recent stop at Union Stage in The Wharf, the end result is a thought-provoking experience — a sight to behold, an absorption of sounds you never knew your mind and body might respond to with such curious enthusiasm. And that’s what has already led to so much success for this Juno Award-winning, culturally and politically fueled project started in Ottawa, Ontario.
Made up of DJs Bear Witness (Ehren Thomas Ramon) and 2oolman (Tim Hill), The Halluci Nation entranced a room full of onlookers on Oct. 28, taking them on a vigorous audible and visual journey into sounds celebrating their ancestry and their culture and mashing those with moombahton, dubstep and more to generate deeply rapturous arrangements.
Listen to The Halluci Nation’s 2020 release “Land Back” below via the group’s YouTube channel:
Powerful drums, hypnotic, almost startling chants and timely drops energized the room as Bear Witness, of the Cayuga Nation, and 2oolman, of the Mohawk Nation, were focused on their decks and other gear partially obscured by an entertaining lineup of rubber WWF toy figures from the 1980s.
While they had little to say throughout the night, Bear Witness and 2oolman would let their gear and their hands do the talking for them during the colorful set.
Bear Witness was on the right, and in addition to DJing, he was controlling a laptop hooked to a projector throwing up clips of movies throughout the night. Cast onto the duo themselves and the white screen behind them, the colors and movement of the sometimes disturbing, usually confounding clips created a sense of insanity and hinted at the political motivation of some of the mixes.
On the left, occasionally looking up to make eye contact with the crowd, 2oolman was the more vocal of the pair. But he too was mostly business in twisting, turning, flipping switches, only peaking up with a grin to see the reaction. Hill, whose family is deeply involved in the sport of lacrosse, a game his people created, had the purple Iroquois Confederacy flag stitched onto his vest.
Music and a display with a purpose, you might say. Formed in Ottawa back in 2007, the group was born when several friends, who also happened to be DJs and involved in the night club scene, learned of gatherings being organized for South Asian and Korean youths, with song and dance being the attraction.
Hoping to create a similar experience for aboriginal youth in the region, Bear Witness and two of his friends launched what would become known as Electric Pow Wow, a series of parties that went on at the Babylon nightclub in Ottawa for a decade as the group would concurrently build its career.
Stream The Halluci Nation’s 2021 release One More Saturday Night via Spotify:
There’s been some changes over time: two of the original members, Ian Campeau and Dan General, departed, and Hill joined back in 2014. 2021 was another year with some adjustment for the group — it officially shifted its name to The Halluci Nation, pulled from the 2016 album titled We Are The Halluci Nation, and in July released its first album under that banner, One More Saturday Night.
While many musicians are just now beginning to find their way back in front of audiences after almost two years of hardship, Bear Witness and 2oolman managed to keep themselves at the forefront of fans’ minds with the digital release of numerous singles, including a key track in 2020, “Land Back,” which became the first release from One More Saturday Night.
This song, like many of the group’s, has a greater aim than to simply move bodies on a dance floor. This track aimed to raise awareness and support for the Wetʼsuwetʼen First Nations effort to prevent the construction of a Coastal GasLink pipeline.
One of several standout tracks pulled from the new release, “Land Back” combines drum and chanting for a rousing, nearly ominous commotion of pulsating sound, with the dubstep and dance hall influences plain to hear and feel.
“Tanokumbia,” a song created for the newest album with the help of Texan nu-cumbia DJ El Dusty and a team of Pow Wow singers and drummers from Quebec called Black Bear, translated to a zestful, refreshing, groovy live sound. And “The OG,” also recorded with the Black Bear group, features some of the same characteristics as the group’s early hits — amplified and distorted chants, a pounding rhythm and provocative audio snippets.
Listen to The Halluci Nation’s “Tanokumbia” featuring El Dusty and Black Bear via the group’s official YouTube channel:
For a handful of songs spread throughout the set, Bear Witness and 2oolman invited to the stage their longtime touring professional dancer, Angela Miracle Gladue. Gladue, who is Cree and hails from amiskwaciwâskahikan near Edmonton, showed her abilities through a number of different dance styles, including what is known as a fancy shawl dance during the song “Northern Cree – Red Skin Girl,” pulled from the group’s original, then-self-titled album, A Tribe Called Red.
Demonstrating aspects of what would be considered traditional First Nations dances, she showcased her traditional hoop dance skills and later even broke into hip-hop freestyle, with each of her demonstrations drawing wild cheers from the audience.
The Halluci Nation pulled several popular hits from their award-winning album from 2012 — named by the Washington Post as one of the year’s top ten. Tracks like “Electric Pow Wow Drum” — with more than 14 million streams on Spotify — asserted control over the basement level venue, its overwhelming tone and wide groove hooking anyone within earshot.
Presenting their music and its cultural origins in a way that is cutting edge and effective, the group has brought widespread attention to a number of critical issues for First Nations people, especially through its younger listeners.
And in the process, The Halluci Nation has developed an unmistakable, worldly vibe that speaks to a borderless perspective on people and sound. Remembering the group’s initial thrust some 14 years ago, this duo is striving to extend those sounds into the future in order to celebrate pivotal music that created an emotional reaction and still does to this day.
Here are images of The Halluci Nation performing at Union Stage in Washington DC on Oct. 28, 2021. All photos copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.