Talking with Mali Obomsawin about ‘Sweet Tooth’

The bass player is probably the last person in the band whom you might expect to drop an emotionally stirring, genre-bending album that challenges everything folks think they know about what constitutes American folk music.

But here I am with Mali Obomsawin, in a booth at an empanada café, sipping lattes and talking about their stunning new album, Sweet Tooth.

“It’s not exactly folk,” I start, and they stop me. “That’s debatable.”

They are, of course, right. The word “folk” has come to mean, in many contexts, music that derives from the commercial 1960s folk boom. Music that traces its ancestry to Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie before him. But limiting folk in this way is both untrue and unfair, as it insinuates the “folk” are only white men from rural towns who converge on New York City in search of work and an artist community.

Even most white men throughout the U.S. would argue that story doesn’t represent them. Even Dylan and Guthrie would probably make that argument.

I suggest to Obomsawin that the industry wants to diversify folk music, but folk music itself has always been diverse. What we need to do is turn our heads to hear all the people who don’t look or sound like ourselves…

“There’s aesthetic segregation,” they say, getting to the center of it more directly than I can. “… They’re not looking for sounds from communities of color. They’re looking for the same sounds [that white people make,] but people of color playing music that white people can handle. …

“There’s this aesthetic expectation that the white folk community has, I think, that music from communities of color should sound the same as their music.”

Obomsawin shot onto the national folk scene in 2019 with their former trio, Lula Wiles, whose exquisitely arranged singer-songwriter-rooted music was just beginning to gain some national traction via Smithsonian Folkways when its members went their separate ways. Isa Burke has been touring as an essential member of Aoife O’Donovan’s crack band. Eleanor Buckland dropped a solo album.

Obomsawin was still in college when Lula Wiles started recording. They were studying experimental music and comparative literature at Dartmouth when one of their advisors, Taylor Ho Barnum, started to point out that their musical voice wasn’t being completely satisfied by what they were doing with their trio. With Barnum’s encouragement, they started composing Sweet Tooth, then holed up in a studio with some fellow virtuosos and recorded a musical statement that is powerful, emotional, provocative, and timely.

Sweet Tooth is a solo debut of sorts, though it’s not a disc they could have possibly performed on their own. It’s a musical suite in three movements—or an album of six tracks, or “a ballad with fourteen verses,” they suggest, depending on how you want to think of it. Its arrangements and storyline make a case for Indigenous resistance.

The opening borrows from a song that was written in the 1700s by an unknown author who was among Obomsawin’s ancestors. (“I don’t know if ‘Cotton Eyed Joe’ goes back that far,” they joke.)

At first, there are horns. A sad, ruminative entrée that opens the gate to Obomsawin’s lilting vocals. Amid the cymbal crashes and drum rolls and thick vines of brass and woodwinds, their bluesy vocal strains—supported by transcendent harmonies—project an image of strength and clarity coming through an epic storm.

Obomsawin is not going to lay this on us easy.

When that track, “Odana,” gives way to “Lineage,” it is their bass alone that provides the stepping stones toward a cornet that sounds like it’s warming up on Frenchman Street—or somewhere. All the other instruments eventually enter, steering the listener through a lineage with many meanderings. The free jazz works up to a period of sustained tension around the five-minute mark. It feels like things fall apart, but this is the musical statement.

The ears search for Obomsawin’s bass to root us, but it’s hard to find. The root, the center, is missing. Jazz vocals join the horns and the hi-hat carries away the cacophony before Obomsawin shows us they have always been there.

Then, Sweet Tooth strolls through hell and back. There is chaos and anger, fear and joy. There is jazz and blues and ragtime and a field recording of an elder telling a story.

Of the latter, “Pedegwajois,” Obomsawin says, “I wanted to feature the entire telling of that story even if I’m not providing a translation. … Most people won’t know this, but there’s only one living first-language speaker of Abenaki right now and she won’t speak it because she is traumatized by residential schools. So, the importance of sharing the language and encouraging people to learn it is indescribable.”

Paired with the elder’s voice, Obomsawin’s bass provides a turning point in the story—a continuum between past and present—that, they make clear, was not created for white folks to understand.

“It’s for the Wabanaki community,” Obomsawin says. “There are five Wabanaki tribes, and our territory spans Southern New England to Labrador, the Maritimes, and Southern Quebec, south of the St. Lawrence River. They’re the ones who have the most cultural competency to really value [Sweet Tooth] and understand it.

“I do feel strongly that people who like instrumental music can engage with it fully … and that was important to me,” they add. Then: “There’s an expectation or an entitlement that people feel to be able to read the translations. But, I think that even if I provided the translations, that wouldn’t really have the meaning that people expect from it, because it’s not [about] their experience.”

Indeed, few white folks can relate to the concept of blood quantum, for which Obomsawin named the closing piece in their suite. (The phrase refers to the mathematics involved with proving your Indigenous bonafides.) Yet that is where they chose to drop the listener.

The statement swings with a balance of rage and joy, something marginalized folks beyond the Wabanaki community will recognize as necessary to survival.

It enters on a frenetic drum solo that moves through a meandering of rhythmic traditions before any other instruments join. Everyone who enters brings their own stuff, but it is the whining cornet that first tugs at the ear even as the woodwinds swing through their gritty harmonies and Obomsawin’s bass holds a steady walking groove.

By the end, every instrument gets its turn. Everyone has their place. Every sound is welcome, however flamboyant or reserved. Every call is answered. There is room.

It ends with voices, singing infectious harmonies on words I don’t understand but will not soon forget.

Obomsawin’s singer-songwriter record is already waiting in the wings. Folks shouldn’t hear it without spending ample time with Sweet Tooth first, though. If you want to let the whole artist in, it is required listening.

Sweet Tooth is available HERE.


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