Mali Obomsawin: Sweet Tooth review | Jude Rogers's folk album of the month

(Out of Your Head)
In their freewheeling debut album, this artist from the Abenaki First Nation repatriates the music of their people

Mali Obomsawin is a musician from the Abenaki First Nation, growing up on ancestral land in Maine and Quebec, whose debut album asks vital questions about the reception and expression of indigenous and traditional music. While studying jazz at New Hampshire’s Dartmouth College, an institution founded to train Native Americans as Christian missionaries, they found field recordings of Abenaki songs and stories locked away in the archives. On Sweet Tooth, Obomsawin repatriates some of the music of their people, and their responses to it, into a suite of resistance.

The artwork for Mali Obomsawin: Sweet Tooth
The artwork for Mali Obomsawin: Sweet Tooth Photograph: Publicity image

Sweet Tooth begins with Odana, an arrangement of an early 18th-century Abenaki ballad. Telling the story of Obomsawin’s village’s founding, their voice is deep, beautiful and powerful, accompanied by brass and shimmering, rolling percussion. Lineage follows, an original composition, evoking the period of more than 12,000 years that passed before the arrival of Europeans on Wabanaki land. Then comes the extraordinary Wawasint8da, based on a translation of a Jesuit hymn, brought into the community by a priest intent on indoctrination. Obomsawin wraps its melody around an Abenaki mourning song, Sami’metwehu, before the track surges into three minutes of thrilling free jazz.

This album’s marriage of folk music with far-out improvisation echoes jazz musicians with Native American roots such as Don Cherry, Jim Pepper and Mildred Bailey. As a bandleader, Obomsawin chooses brilliant musicians, like folklorist and singer Miriam Elhajli, whose own work is influenced by her Venezuelan, Moroccan and North American heritage.

A field recording by renowned Odanak storyteller Théophile Panadis leads us into the album’s final tracks, which combine dissonant, explosive textures with intricate melodies and an exhilarating Penobscot language chant in its last minutes. Obomsawin reminds listeners constantly that folk music shouldn’t be about pliant, pretty subservience, and that Abenaki culture is loudly, proudly living and expanding.

Also out this month

Lizabett Russo’s While I Sit and Watch This Tree, Volume 2 (self-released) is another absorbing album by this Romanian artist long living in Scotland, blending her Transylvanian roots with stunning, original songs. Fans of Emiliana Torrini, Björk and James Blake should listen in. Northern Irish singer and harpist Brona McVittie embraces her love of synthesisers on The Woman in the Moon (Company of Corkbots), with energising ambient treatments of ballads such as Star of the County Down and Tiocfaidh an Samhradh. Rachel Walker and Aaron Jones’ Despite the Wind and Rain (Ròs Dearg Records) is another treat, drizzling Gaelic and English lyrics in Moog and strings, to celebrate the scientific prowess and strength of Scottish women throughout history.

Contributor

Jude Rogers

The GuardianTramp

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