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Sunday, November 27, 2022

Mali Obomsawin – Sweet Tooth (OOYH, 2022)

By Nick Ostrum

Sweet Tooth is the debut release of bassist, composer and vocalist Mali Obomsawin. On it, she is joined by Savannah Harris (drums, vocals), Miriam Elhajli (guitars, co-lead vocals), Allison Burik (bass clarinet, alto saxophone, vocals), Noah Campbell (tenor, soprano, alto saxophones) and Taylor Ho Bynum (cornet, flugelhorn).

The first piece, Odana, is based on an 18th century Odanak ballad and sets a fittingly pensive mood with Spanish horns and a plodding hymn that fall somewhere between the entrancing theme to Concierto de Aranjuez (Adagio) (the first track on Sketches of Spain) and the opening bars to A Change is Gonna Come (Otis Blue). From here, Sweet Tooth travels through traditional hymns and poems and a wholly new pieces (Blood Quantum (Nəwewəčəskawikαpáwihtawα)), all arranged and composed by Odomsawin with the help of a series of other, mainly Indigenous, composers. The entire album is dedicated to storytelling, starting from the ancestral stories of Odana and traveling through reflections on the histories of the Abenaki First Nation, the Wabanaki confederacy of which it was part and, more universally, Native American struggles and perseverance against colonialism. Hence the pain, the hope and defiance threaded throughout this suite.

And this is, indeed, a suite. A few pieces stand out, especially Wawasin8da, which shifts from an askew march to a full-on blow-out at the end and, in the process, approaches the Albert Ayler Funeral March in its unfettered, mournful wail. That said, I am not sure any of these pieces make the same impression outside of this context. Together, however, they form a complete journey. They batter the listener between moments of escape and memorialization, of curious exploration and sadness but also, as form reflects content, of reconstitution. This comes through in the laggard swing of much of the album, the combination of third wave composition, free and winding ascensions, deep, clattery drum rambles and, of course, the haunting and consoling vocals of Obomsawin and Elhajli. Indeed, as much as I had expected to hear Elhajli’s guitar or Obomsawin’s bass forcing its way to the front or Bynum’s cornet slicing through the hazy sonic stew, none of this really happens. Instead, Sweet Tooth is a finely balanced group effort, where the vocals sparingly but effectively take control. I guess this balance is somewhat natural for an album constructed around storytelling and languages, whether understood in precise articulations or just colors and moods. Still, it stands out.

The one outlier on this album is the final track, Blood Quantum (Nəwewəčəskawikαpáwihtawα). Penned by Obomsawin with the help of several other First Nations composers, it is the most contemporary. It is an extended piece and it seems the most open, if also funky. Yet, it maintains the enough of the aesthetic of the rest of the album and, in a sense, brings the narrative – and the Abenaki past - into the present. Indeed, one hears the echoes of previous struggles in the final chant, which translates as: “I stand to face him, I face him defiantly, unflinchingly, I confront him./We remember our matriarchs./We remember our grandmothers.” It is left to the listener to determine who “him” is, though the implication indicates a timelessness of the confrontation.

Throughout its 37 minutes, Sweet Tooth examines similar questions of the construction of the present through the past and the comprehension of that past through music that sounds both vibrantly relict and thoroughly contemporary. And it does so with a rare beauty and potency. One of the best I have heard all year.

Sweet Tooth is available on vinyl and CD or as a download through Bandcamp:


Anonymous said...

"One of the best I have heard all year" - me too.