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  Powwow Drums

Edmond Bull is the leader of drum group Red Bull.
- all photos courtesy Ted Whitecalf
Edmond Bull is the leader of drum group Red Bull.
Sound Clip -- courtesy Sweet Grass Records

First Nations peoples of North America are experiencing a renaissance in culture and values. Accompanying this renewed pride of heritage is a burgeoning music industry whose root is the traditional drum group, the essence of aboriginal sound.

Without the drum, there can be no powwow. Without the drum, there can be no celebration of friendship in the Round Dance, no "honor" songs paying tribute to bygone leaders, and no sacred Sun Dance ritual at mid-summer.

Without the drum, there is no heartbeat.

Given this central role the drum group plays for First Nation communities everywhere, it's no mean feat to be judged the best one in the world. That honor goes to the Saskatchewan drum group Red Bull.

"The world championship is the highlight of our career," group leader Edmond Bull says in typically quiet understatement. The group, which varies from 10 to 15 performers, earned the award at the international competition in Hartford, Connecticut.

Edmond, a 49-year-old Cree from the Little Pine First Nation near North Battleford, comes from a family where drumming and singing is passed down from generation to generation. His first recollection of drum music was hearing his father and uncles perform on the reserve. Eventually he joined them, and their group came to be known in powwow circles as The Little Pine Singers.

By 1987, Edmond was the leader and primary composer of original music for the group. Before performing at an important powwow in Regina that year, he changed the group's name to Red Bull. Their powerful debut under the new name led to invitations to perform across Canada and in Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New Mexico and Oklahoma. As news spread of their spirited and soaring performances, requests poured in for Red Bull to act as the honored "host" drum group for powwows across North America.
Members of Red Bull with their world-championship trophy.
Members of Red Bull with their world-championship trophy.

Red Bull now has performed in Poland, Finland, Sweden and Russia, as part of the Goodwill Games, as well as from coast to coast across North America. A composition Edmond created and performed with Buffy Saint-Marie won a Canadian music industry Juno for Best Music of Aboriginal Canada, and the group received its own Juno nomination for a 1995 album entitled "Dancing Around the World", produced by Saskatoon's Sweet Grass Records. They've appeared on television specials, a Buffy Saint-Marie music video, and they continue to be in high demand on the powwow circuit.

It's been a busy 11 years for the group, which now draws its mostly male members from the Little Pine, Onion Lake, Red Pheasant and Poundmaker First Nations. But the group's accelerating activities reflect and feed the growth in traditional aboriginal culture.

Red Bull's music is considered "northern original style", a form characterized by high-pitched vocals associated with Cree singers, explains Edmond. Some of the tunes, such as sacred songs of celebration or ones honoring past leaders, are handed down from previous generations like folk songs in the non-native tradition. Others are contemporary in nature, composed by Edmond and ranging in subject matter from politics to love.

"I'm a composer," says Edmond, "but I don't write songs down on paper."

According to First Nations tradition, the leader of a drum group is gifted through the Creator to make songs that connect with the spirit world. Typically, Edmond composes a song during a performance. He sings the words or voices the melody once or twice, and then he's joined by other members of the group.
Red Bull members record with Buffy Saint-Marie. Darling Don't Cry, composed by Edmond and Buffy, won a Juno award in 1995.
Red Bull members record with Buffy Saint-Marie. Darling Don't Cry, composed by Edmond and Buffy, won a Juno award in 1995.

"We started adding Cree words to our music in 1987," says Edmond. "Up until then, there were no words for Cree singers -- it was mostly an original melody."

Red Bull spends the warmer half of the year touring the powwow circuit and performing at outdoor celebrations around North America. The pace slows somewhat during winter, but the group performs about every second weekend at Round Dances across the province.

The Round Dance, which involves dancing in a circle while holding hands, is a marathon of friendship and spiritual renewal that begins at 7 p.m. and ends at 5 a.m.

"We (musicians) take turns. We move to the middle of the circle and stand up to sing. We sing three or four songs and then another group takes over. Sometimes there's 24 groups of singers."

Edmond is especially pleased with the move by young people towards a more traditional way of life. He says this growth in customary ways is nowhere more apparent than at a Round Dance.

"A lot of young people are very into that now, and it's a good thing. It keeps them away from alcohol and drugs."

Traditional groups like Red Bull are much a part of those changes.

If you're interested in purchasing a Red Bull album, contact Sweet Grass Records at 306-343-7053.

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