Odanak First Nation's Mali Obomsawin tells Indigenous stories through music Mali Obomsawin's first solo album combines Wabanaki songs and jazz arrangements. She calls it "the first authentic statement" in her creative journey.

Odanak First Nation's Mali Obomsawin tells Indigenous stories through music

Odanak First Nation's Mali Obomsawin tells Indigenous stories through music

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Mali Obomsawin's first solo album combines Wabanaki songs and jazz arrangements. She calls it "the first authentic statement" in her creative journey.

Mali Obomsawin's first solo album is called Sweet Tooth. Courtesy Mali Obomsawin hide caption

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Courtesy Mali Obomsawin


When Mali Obomsawin graduated from Dartmouth College in 2018, she quickly found success as one-third of the acclaimed folk rock band Lula Wiles. But Mali grew frustrated by the limitations of that success. She says fans in the Americana folk scene expected a white folk aesthetic. Mali is a citizen of the Odanak First Nation in Quebec, and she didn't fit that box, so she left. She's now released her first album as a solo artist, "Sweet Tooth." It represents a different kind of folk music. Wabanaki hand drums and jazz arrangements replace banjo twang. Mali calls it the first authentic statement in her creative journey. Josh Crane of member station Vermont Public has the story.

JOSH CRANE, BYLINE: The opening two tracks of "Sweet Tooth" focus on the past. They're called "Odana" and "Lineage."

MALI OBOMSAWIN: "Odana," the forming of our nation and our satellite village, Missisquoi.


OBOMSAWIN: (Singing in non-English language).

"Lineage" goes back even further, right? And it's the story of - the timeless story of the Abenaki, you know, conceptually, right? That composition has no lyrics, but that's what's happening in the first movement.


OBOMSAWIN: The second movement is about spirituality, which transcends all time, of course. But the first song is a - you know, the religious Catholic hymn translated into Abenaki by a priest, possibly as early as the 1690s, as a means to colonize us and Christianize us, right?


OBOMSAWIN: (Singing in non-English language).

And then the counterpart of that is "Pedegwajois," which is the ancient spiritual story.


CRANE: This is my favorite part of the album. You may have to help me with pronunciation, but on the fourth track, "Pedagogo" (ph).

OBOMSAWIN: "Pedegwajois."

CRANE: "Pedegwajois."


CRANE: All right. On that track, it opens with a voice that isn't yours.



THEOPHILE PANADIS: (Non-English language spoken).

CRANE: Who is that?

OBOMSAWIN: Yeah, his name is Theophile Panadis from the Panadis family. He's telling the story of our spirit journeys to what's called Lake Champlain in that recording.

CRANE: Mali found this recording in the archives at Dartmouth College. It was made in the mid-1900s by an ethnologist named Gordon Day. The person he recorded, Theophile Panadis, was a traditional teacher from Odanak First Nation.

How did you decide to include that so prominently in the first two or so minutes of that track?

OBOMSAWIN: To have an actual first-language speaker featured on the album felt really important. You know, I tried my best, right? And I think the ancestors will be able to understand me, you know. It might be a little accented or whatnot. But for him to have the space to tell so much of that story, it felt important. And as an improviser as well, I just think our language is so melodic and rhythmic, and it was really fascinating to me to try to improvise to that and be in conversation with that on my instrument.


PANADIS: (Non-English language spoken).

CRANE: For nearly two minutes at the opening of this track, one of Mali's predecessors at Odanak First Nation tells his story while Mali accompanies him on the bass. It's like a reunion across generations.


PANADIS: (Non-English language spoken).

CRANE: And then one of Mali's accompanying musicians comes in with some guitar.


PANADIS: (Non-English language spoken).

CRANE: Soon after, others come in on the horns.


PANADIS: (Non-English language spoken).

OBOMSAWIN: There's this idea that Indigenous people will never leave the 16th or 17th or 18th century, right? They see us in regalia. They see us living in wigwams or teepees, which is inaccurate, you know, right? And there's this idea that, well, we can't adapt or, you know, this like denial of modernity to Indigenous people. And that's what I really wanted to showcase with this album. You know, we're saying things now. We have - we're telling powerful stories now, and you would benefit by engaging with them now.

CRANE: And then there's the third and final movement on "Sweet Tooth." If the first movement is about the past and the second movement is about spirituality...

OBOMSAWIN: The final movement is for the living, right? It's the issues of community keeping and community definition and community preservation that we're facing going forward.

CRANE: The titles of the last two tracks are "Fractions" and "Blood Quantum," both of which speak to the legacy of efforts to divide and even erase Native nations. Blood quantum laws were created by the U.S. government to measure the amount of someone's, "quote," "Indian blood." For a long time in Canada, Indigenous women lost their Native status if they married white men. It's a history that feels uncomfortably close and personal for Mali as a young Indigenous person navigating dating and relationships.


OBOMSAWIN: So I was thinking a lot about this, you know, and the kind of stress that comes with Indigenous love and how angry that makes me, you know. And at the time, you know, it was really weighing on me. So I wanted to put out an album that not necessarily in words but in spirit and instrumentally addressed these concepts.


CRANE: The closing song on the album, "Blood Quantum," also has a Wabanaki subtitle.

OBOMSAWIN: "Neweweceskawikapawihtawa" (ph) which means - I wasn't going to make you say that - which means...

CRANE: Thank you.

OBOMSAWIN: ...I stand to face him or I stand ready to fight him.

CRANE: Who are you standing ready to fight?

OBOMSAWIN: (Laughter) Well, speaking, I guess, of the last movement, I'm ready to fight against anything that is trying to diminish our communities and the health of our communities. And, you know, the other lyrics of that chant are we honor our matriarchs, we honor our grandmothers. And so I'm fighting for them. You know, I'm fighting for the women in the community and our role in leading our communities. I wasn't going to say fight the patriarchy, you know, but (laughter)...

CRANE: Same idea.

OBOMSAWIN: Yeah, we got there.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in non-English language).

CRANE: Josh Crane, Vermont Public.

FLORIDO: This story comes to us from Brave Little State, a podcast from Vermont Public.

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