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Bassist Mali Obomsawin's 'Sweet Tooth' puts jazz in conversation with Indigenous history

Mali Obomsawin, dressed in traditional clothes of the Wabanaki First Nation community, faces the camera with eyes looking slightly to the right.
Obomsawin describes 'Sweet Tooth' as "a suite for Indigenous resistance." (Photo credit: Abby and Jared Lank)

Before studying jazz at Dartmouth College and touring with folk-rock band Lula Wiles, Mali Obomsawin grew up attending fiddle camps at their home in Maine. There, they spent years learning from a rich regional tradition with diverse influences — including the musical precursors to jazz.

“You’ve got Acadian fiddle music and Quebecois music, as well as influences of ragtime and even some blues and some old-time music coming up from the South,” Obomsawin told VPM Music.

Later, in high school, they dove into studying avant-garde jazz bass, which continued during their time at Dartmouth in classes with cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum.

Obomsawin is a member of Wabanaki First Nation at Odanak, also known as Odanak First Nation. Their Native community, commonly known today as the Wabanaki or Abenaki people, also imparted its own influence on Obomsawin’s music.

“I’m also Wabanaki, and grew up hearing powwow songs,” they said. “Traditional songs from our gatherings.”

To Obomsawin, folk and jazz hold a common guiding principle: community.

“Everyone’s individual voice in those communities is valued,” Obomsawin explained. “And that’s what keeps the music moving forward.”

Community is at the heart of Obomsawin’s new album “Sweet Tooth,” a free-jazz suite combining historic songs from Abenaki people with Obomsawin’s own contributions.

“It’s a conversation between me and my ancestors,” Obomsawin said. “The way that we framed it, there’s these ancestral offerings that weren’t previously in conversation with each other, all lined up along this timeline and emotional space of my album.”

“Sweet Tooth” opens with “Odana,” an offering that Obomsawin learned from Alanis Obomsawin, an elder in their community. The song tells the story of Odanak First Nation’s founding, which came after the Abenaki people were forced to flee their home in what’s now the Lake Champlain area in Vermont.

“We don’t know exactly the year it was written, but we do know it’s a song describing a specific period in Abenaki history. So, we can date it to somewhat of a time period,” said Obomsawin about the track. “The ancestor who wrote it was giving thanks to the people who founded our reservation and also giving a warning — that we need to protect the community and the village so that we don’t lose our land again.”

Through this balancing act, “Odana” introduces a duality on “Sweet Tooth” that Obomsawin said is at the center of Native life: the coexistence of peace and violence.

“We’re in our motherland, but we are severed from her,” they said.  “That’s a space that the album lives in.”

The second movement of “Sweet Tooth inhabits this duality with a spiritual focus. “Wawasint8da” adapts a Jesuit hymn translated into Abenaki for missionary purposes, proclaiming fire and brimstone over Ornette Coleman-inspired horns from Bynum, Allison Burik and Noah Campbell.

The tranquil “Pedegwajois,” meanwhile, features a recorded sample of Odanak’s Théophile Panadis describing ancestral spiritual practices. The voices of history echo on “Sweet Tooth” through these field recordings of Obomsawin’s relatives. Originally gathered by anthropologist Gordon Day, the tapes were left in Dartmouth’s archives for years — forgotten in a school founded to convert Obomsawin’s ancestors.

Now, they’re being given back to the Abenaki community – and Obomsawin is using them to let history speak.

“I can’t represent my nation alone, even artistically,” Obomsawin noted. “I wanted to honor and include those who informed me.”

Obomsawin’s bass work is a deft conversation partner throughout “Sweet Tooth,” leading a driving call to action on “Lineage” and delicately accompanying Panadis’ instruction on “Pedegwajois.” On “Blood Quantum,” the closer, they join with Bynum, drummer Savannah Harris and guitarist Miriam Ehlajli for a stirring testament to continued survival.

"Blood Quantum” ends on a chant Obomsawin wrote with activist Lokotah Sanborn and language-keeper Carol Dana, of the Penobscot Nation. Its lyrics celebrate the historic and contemporary matriarchs of Indigenous communities, blending traditional origins with a modern sound.

“It’s informed by the musical ideas and musical motifs that we know from our traditional music, but it is contemporary,” Obomsawin said.

The bassist has a fall tour planned to mark the release of “Sweet Tooth,” ending with a University of Virginia residency in November with Bill Cole’s Untempered Ensemble. After that, they’re planning to sit down with a new hard drive of recordings.

“This winter, I’ll be digging deeper into the archives,” they said. “Trying to figure out what’s next for me artistically with this material.”

Mali Obomsawin’s residency at the University of Virginia will take place from Nov. 16 to 18. Tickets to the ensemble’s shows are $15 general admission and $5 for students.