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