Mali Obomsawin explores the hidden story of Indigenous jazz and writes their own chapter
Even as Indigenous musician Mali Obomsawin was playing the festival circuit with the Boston folk trio Lula Wiles, the bassist was thinking of composing a suite that would explore their Wabanaki heritage through the lens of modern creative jazz.
When Lula Wiles went on an indefinite hiatus, Obomsawin made this dream a reality, releasing a recording called “Sweet Tooth” and embarking on a tour that is playing listening rooms like Club Passim as well as the Odanak First Nations Reserve in Quebec. A collection of three movements, “Sweet Tooth” is a stirring and profoundly original piece of music in which ancient Wabanaki songs intertwine with free jazz.
Obomsawin says that “I’m passionate about traditional music, and I’m passionate about free improvisation and creative music.” Referencing free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman, Obomsawin says Wabanaki songs “are amazing melodies, so my post-Ornette brain thought why not offer them into the improvisational space, and see where we can go with them?”
That mix gives “Sweet Tooth” a unique and compelling sound, but as Obomsawin is quick to point out, it also continues the long and often overlooked story of Indigenous jazz musicians. Saxophonist and vocalist Jim Pepper was perhaps the most prominent jazz artist who put his Native roots front and center, but many of the music’s most important figures like Charlie Parker, Mildred Bailey and longtime Ornette Coleman saxophonist Don Cherry also were of Native descent. And Indigenous musicians like Connecticut saxophonist Mixashawn and the late Worcester drummer Reggie Walley made notable contributions to the New England jazz scene.
One reason the Native connection to jazz was so hidden, says Obomsawin, is that many of its key players were also Black. “If you’re Black, people think it’s impossible for you to be anything else authentically. And the flip side for Native folks who aren’t Black but also don’t look like what Pocahontas looks like there might be an assumption that we’re not Native as well, so it really shines a light on anti-Blackness as well as the stereotyping of what the Native aesthetic is.”
“Sweet Tooth” opens with a movement that includes a centuries-old song about Odanak, Obomsawin’s ancestral village. The second movement includes a Christian song that Jesuit missionaries translated from Latin into the Abenaki language. This fiery, violent hymn is juxtaposed with a Wabanaki song about passing down traditions.
Obomsawin explains that Indigenous musicians learned to play brass instruments brought to their villages by missionaries - “It’s jazz like jazz — how did folks in the South get these European instruments? It was through military bands or the church, and it’s the same on reservations across the US and Canada.”
“I think that as a young Native person I’m very militantly anti-Christian, because of the harm the church has done to my people and marginalized people all over the world, infiltrating and decimating indigenous spiritual practices,” Obomsawin says. “So I want to get those feelings out on this album, but I also realize that for older generations of Native people, that’s the only religion they know.” Speaking of their reservation performances, Obomsawin says, “I’ll be a lot more gentle with it and try to be more conscious about who I’m performing this for, and what’s in their heart, because not everyone feels as just simply angry as it makes me.”
The album concludes with a movement that Obomsawin says is “for the living” who are grappling with colonization and assimilation. “We as Natives spend a lot of time thinking about the past, and what’s projected onto us is this idea that we’re contained in the past, and that there is no Native future. The last movement is really a direct address to the Indian country, and it is asking questions about what do we see as the future given these eradication policies that we are faced with and challenged by.”
Obomsawin made “Sweet Tooth” with a group of musical collaborators from the worlds of folk and jazz. Studying at Dartmouth with the album’s co-producer, Brookline-bred cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, helped inspire their dive into the world of ambitious creative music. While Obomsawin also plays with the all-Native Julia Keefe Indigenous Big Band, they say for “Sweet Tooth” “there were a lot of considerations that went into choosing the band, and I didn’t feel like it had to be all-Native band, because I feel there are so many different kinds of people who have something to say about colonialism. And that’s what jazz is about: dialogues about colonialism,” Obomsawin says. “People are calling this a jazz album, but I’m not a shredding jazz musician. This album lives in the middle, so bringing on someone like [lead singer and guitarist] Miriam Elhajli was very important, because she’s a folklorist and folk musician, and not in that be-bop world. I wrote the music keeping in mind who would be playing it.”
Directly connected to Obomsawin’s music is their activist work, which includes the Bomazeen Land Trust, which describes itself as a land rematriation project. “The song ‘Odana’ talks about the forced exodus from the homeland to a reservation in southern Quebec, and the land trust is a grassroots effort to get back and protect the land that we’re no longer occupying in a traditional way.”
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