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Mali Obomsawin: From Lula Wiles To The Ambitious ‘Sweet Tooth’

Sweet Tooth
Mali Obomsawin

I wrote in January about the important but hidden connections between Americana music and jazz, and little did I know at the time that an exemplary recording had recently been released. Now I’ve discovered Sweet Tooth, a mostly instrumental suite for jazz sextet from bass player and singer Mali Obomsawin. Folk music fans may know her as a member of the excellent former trio Lula Wiles (with Eleanor Buckland and Isa Burke), but with this debut project, Obomsawin proves she’s also a visionary composer. She steps into the spotlight with a story to tell about her roots in the Abenaki First Nation at Odanak, part of Canada’s Wabanaki Confederacy.

The Wabanaki is an alliance of Native North American nations that dates back to the 17th century, with a geographic base encompassing Maine, Nova Scotia and some of Quebec. The album, released last October, as described by the artist, “blends Wabanaki stories and songs with compositions addressing contemporary Indigenous life, colonization, and continuity. It’s at once intimately personal, featuring field recordings of relatives from Odanak First Nation, but also conveys a larger story of the Wabanaki people. The compositions reveal threads that bind together blues, jazz, hymns, folk songs, and Native cultures, and foreground the breadth of Indigenous contributions to these genres.”

This often isn’t easy listening, but it will be exciting for fans of big-thinking composers and bass-playing band leaders like Charles Mingus and Charlie Haden. Obomsawin has her musicians, notably the horns, range far afield from conventional western harmony and timbre. Her voice is used in both straight and abstract ways. On “Pedegwajois,” Mali’s rich and anchoring bass playing dances musically with the spoken word of a native storyteller before the tune evolves into one of the sweetest and most pastoral sections of the record. Drummer Savannah Harris shines, especially in the opening of the final cut “Blood Quantum,” an eleven-minute discourse featuring saxophones and brass that blossoms at the end into an original chant. Backed by steady skin drums, this brief passage of the album sounds like something the casual listener might recognize as Native American music.

The album has been widely praised, including by JazzTimes, which wrote: “Sweet Tooth may be Obomsawin’s debut, but it never feels tentative: The compositions and performances meet at a similar high watermark. And, thankfully, it not only works as potent commentary on Indigenous heritage, autonomy and experiences, but as gripping, dynamic, and thunderous music in and of itself.”

Find Sweet Tooth by Mali Obomsawin on Bandcamp here.

Sweet Tooth

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org