Mali Obomsawin: Sweet Tooth

Sweet Tooth is the debut album from Wabanaki bassist, composer and songwriter Mali Obomsawin who has an eclectic musical background in roots, jazz, and indie rock. It is being described as ‘a suite for indigenous resistance’. As such it should be of interest and relevance to Okinawans whose own history has been marked by oppression and colonialism.

The album blends Wabanaki stories and songs passed down in Obomsawin’s own family with tunes addressing contemporary indigenous life. The music conveys both gentle and aggressive moods. There is one especially effective track featuring field recordings of relatives at Odanak First Nation. It also tells a larger story of the Wabanaki people whose domain stretches from Eastern Canada to Southern New England.

Obomsawin was raised on ancestral land in Maine and Quebec on the Odanak First Nations Reserve, and while studying jazz at Dartmouth College discovered the voices of ancestors locked away in the college archives in field recordings of Odanak songs and stories. This revelation led eventually to the creation of Sweet Tooth.

The six tracks are divided into three movements and joining Obomsawin are other musicians on vocals, drums, guitars, saxophones, cornet, and flugelhorn. The music is impossible to pigeonhole even if it was desirable to do so, as it has many influences and flows in numerous directions. While mostly instrumental, with free jazz as an important reference point, there are also hints of blues, hymns, folk songs, and native culture.

Says Obomsawin: “Telling Indigenous stories through the language of jazz is not a new phenomenon. My people have had to innovate endlessly to get our stories heard – learning to express ourselves in French, English, Abenaki…but sometimes words fail us, and we must use sound. Sweet Tooth is a testament to this.”

Mali Obomsawin (Photo: Abby and Jared Lank)

The track that begins the album ‘Odana’ – already released as a single – is an arrangement of an old Obanaki ballad that tells the story (in the Abenaki language) of the founding of Obomsawin’s ancestral village and of why these people survived.

The album ends with its longest track ‘Blood Quantum’ which concludes with a Penobscot language chant written by Obomsawin and relatives from Penobscot Nation celebrating the matriarchs of their communities. It’s intended as ‘a direct address to violent and misogynistic policies in North America written to tear Indigenous communities apart’.

Mali Obomasawin is obviously a passionate musician and activist. Sweet Tooth is not an easy first listen, but it is well worth making the effort to investigate such an innovative and ultimately uplifting suite that creates art in the harsh face of colonialism. It ought to resonate in the Ryukyus. It’s certainly an album unlike any other you will hear this year.   

Sweet Tooth will be released on digital and LP by Out of Your Head Records on 28th October.

Explore posts in the same categories: Roots Music from Out There

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