Concert Review: Odanak First Nation’s Mali Obamsawin @ Caffe Lena, 03/26/2023
SARATOGA SPRINGS – With a steady roll of percussion that rumbled through the delicate audience at Caffe Lena Sunday night, award-winning musician, Mali Obomsawin held the upright bass that stood gigantic next to her. A rising tide of restless instruments – saxophone, cornet, trumpet, guitar, bass, percussion – from her sextet band rippled underneath the surface in swells of varying intensity, until it kicked off like a mysterious carnival of sadness, a slow caravan steadily inching ahead. After the controlled menace resolved and vanished, Obamsawin began chanting in Wabanaki. Their first song of the night then ends as it begins.
Award-winning musician, Mali Obamsawin, is reminding audiences with her debut original work, Sweet Tooth, that folk music is transmutable.
Their first official release as a bandleader and composer features original music and arrangements of folk songs from their heritage. In between these folk elements, Obomsawin’s sextet glues the pieces together with avant-garde and improvisational American jazz as a way to re-envision and recount the stories of her Native American heritage: Odanak’s First Nation.
Previous to what she told NPR, “the first real authentic statement in her creative journey,” Obomsawin found success as a member of the folk band, Lula Wiles.
“There is an under-appreciated history of indigenous jazz bands across the continent. I’m trying to raise awareness of it,” Obamsawin told the audience on Sunday night.
And Sunday’s modest but attentive crowd was eager to hear Obomsawin’s story. Her performance was a testament to her people’s heritage surviving by adapting, whether it was changing the style of music or the language the stories were told through.
After Ombosawin received a grant from the South Arts, a regional group that awards grants to diverse artists from marginal backgrounds, the explorative jazz musician was able to take her first album on the road.
Born and raised in Portland, Maine, her home is included in the original territory belonging to the First Nation of Odanak. This is her heritage. Her activism stretches beyond the music; she is also an environmental advocate and community organizer.
Obamsawin spoke slowly and deftly to the captivated audience; the rest of her band listened tentatively as well and watched Mali’s every graceful move. While there was a lingering sense of deep pain embedded within the songs, their performance was celebratory, ecstatic, and revelatory.
“Saratoga Springs was an important area during the late 1800s,” Obamsawin told the audience. “The Abenaki people came to this area for basket trading,” she said. Basket-making and trading was the main source of income for the Abenakis roughly between 1870 and 1920.
While the sextet was courageous in their risk-taking, it is perhaps dangerous to completely associate the purity of their expression with an overt message. They found true liberation – free of the burden of the past, of the oppression of memory, of the weight of the world – if just for a few moments – in experimental jazz improvisation grounded by the merit of tradition.
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