A Maine Musician Taps into Her Roots

Bandleader, composer, and musician Mali Obomsawin draws from her musical upbringing and Wabanaki heritage in her debut compositional suite, “Sweet Tooth.”

To the average music listener, the genres of rock, folk, and jazz seem like entirely separate entities, delineated into distinct boxes within the music industry. To those with more attuned ears, similarities among the three blur the lines ever so slightly. For Portland-based musician and activist Mali Obomsawin, who specializes in these genres in her work as a composer, songwriter, bass player, singer, and bandleader, the three aren’t separate at all, but intertwine. “Jazz and folk and rock are a continuum,” she says, noting how folk and rock draw from gospel music traditions, which in turn draw from jazz and blues. “I hope, in my career, to exemplify that, if you dig deep enough into any of those genres, you’ll get to the others.”

Obomsawin’s debut album as a composer and bandleader, Sweet Tooth (slated for release this fall), is the embodiment of this sentiment of interwoven styles. Dubbed by Obomsawin as her “resistance suite,” the record draws on both her lifelong musical training and her Wabanaki heritage as a citizen of the Abenaki First Nation at Odanak, and it features her original compositions alongside ancient Wabanaki songs written by her ancestors. Known most widely for her work as the bass player for popular folk group Lula Wiles, for which she also writes and sings indie and Americana songs, Obomsawin’s album is a deviation into her other musical passions. “I think people don’t know that alongside Lula Wiles and in between our shows, I’ve always been developing this other craft of mine, which is jazz music,” she says. “Specifically, avant-garde and creative improvised music, which has an amazing legacy of being resistance music.”

Obomsawin was born in northern New Hampshire and moved to Farmington when she was five. She has spent much of her life imbued in music and the creative arts. Her childhood home in Farmington was a converted barn that had served as storage for Bread and Puppet Theater, and when the family moved in it still housed various papier-mâché mythical creatures, creating what Obomsawin describes as a “dreamy” environment to grow up in. From a young age she listened to her father, a jazz and blues musician, play at home and in venues around the Northeast and, in the fifth grade, when she started learning the upright bass, she began playing with him. She went on to join the Franklin County Fiddlers, a fiddle group based in Farmington, and in the summers attended Maine Jazz Camp and Maine Fiddle Camp, where she met her future bandmates from Lula Wiles, Isa Burke and Eleanor Buckland, when she was only 13.

In 2013 Obomsawin enrolled at Berklee College of Music to study upright bass, and that’s when she formed Lula Wiles with Burke and Buckland, who were already attending the prestigious Boston school. She then went on to study at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, majoring in comparative literature and government while simultaneously going through the college’s music program. As the youngest of the three members of Lula Wiles, Obomsawin was touring and recording with the group while still in school after her bandmates had already graduated, and most of her spare moments outside of class were spent honing her craft. After graduating in 2018 Obomsawin moved back to Boston and began touring with the band full-time, spending roughly one week of each month in her apartment. In late 2019 she moved to New York City, performing the same dance of life on the road for about six months before the pandemic hit in early 2020. The lockdown meant canceled shows and a dried-up source of income, which made paying New York City rent no longer feasible. So, she returned home to Maine.

For most of the pandemic Obomsawin was living in a cabin in Lubec, sequestered from the world. During quarantine Lula Wiles (aided by Zoom) wrote and recorded their latest album, Shame and Sedition, which came out in 2021 and, of the group’s three albums, most prominently features Obomsawin’s songwriting. After spending innumerable hours on the road for years—which Obomsawin describes as being hard on the body, mentally and physically, and hard on the earth from an emissions standpoint—the lockdown provided her with the opportunity to finally slow down and focus on her own work.

Under the tutelage of her mentor at Dartmouth, Taylor Ho Bynam, Obomsawin had begun composing what would eventually become Sweet Tooth during her senior year. Inspired by her musical inheritance as a Wabanaki, Obomsawin found herself reflecting on the adaptiveness of Indigenous people. “There is this kind of expectation that Native people won’t evolve,” she says, “that people will only take you seriously as a Native person if you are dressed like it’s 1730, and you’re wearing your full regalia. But we are adaptive, and our music traditions reflect that as well.” Many of the songs on the album give a nod to the musical influences in the Northeast that her ancestors were exposed to, including jazz, ragtime, and brass marching bands. She notes one song in particular, written by one of her ancestors some 150 years ago, that has clear influences from Quebecois waltzes. In turn, the album also pays tribute to the musical influences Obomsawin grew up listening to, including jazz, folk, and rock and roll, in addition to the ancient songs she and her relatives would sing together.

In the past few years, Obomsawin has also branched out into composing for various outside projects, including writing the score for We Are the Warriors, a documentary about the removal of racist mascots from the Wells-Ogunquit school district, as well as string arrangements for musician-led Portland string ensemble Palaver Strings’ project Welcome Here, which celebrates the indigenous and immigrant communities in Maine. In 2020 she joined Welcome to Indian Country, a roundup of Native musicians that travels across Turtle Island (a common Indigenous name synonymous with North America) performing for audiences Obomsawin says she rarely found while touring with Lula Wiles. “I struggled a lot with trying to get Native people and people of color in general to come out to our shows, because it doesn’t exactly scream ‘relatability’ to a lot of those audiences.” With Welcome to Indian Country, that representation is completely shifted. “I think that, if I had grown up seeing Native people play rock and roll and seeing Native artists play jazz,” she says, “I would have understood our place in that music a lot sooner.”

On top of her music, Obomsawin writes and organizes for Sunlight Media, a media team that documents and promotes stories at the intersection of tribal sovereignty and environmental justice in the Wabanaki Homeland. She also cofounded the Bomazeen Land Trust, a nonprofit focused on landback initiatives in Maine that has successfully returned land in the Kennebec River region to the Wabanaki Confederacy.

For the rest of 2022, Obomsawin, who now lives in Portland, has a busy tour schedule planned. This month she will be traveling in Maine and the Northeast with her rock band, performing her own songs under her own name for the first time. Sweet Tooth, performed and recorded by the Mali Obomsawin Sextet (which is different from the group she is touring with now), “ends with a chant that I wrote with my partner and with a grandmother named Carol Dana, from Penobscot Nation,” says Obomsawin. “The words of the chant say, ‘I stand to fight him, I stand to face him. We remember our matriarchs and we honor our grandmothers.’” Much like the music she performs and writes, in many ways Obomsawin is a continuum of her own. “I think that Native people are resistant all the time.” she says. “There’s the common phrase that people say, ‘our existence is resistance,’ because this nation was founded on the idea that Native people will soon be extinct because the genocide will be complete. When we exist, when we thrive, and when we declare our presence, that is a resistance.”

Catch Obomsawin’s performances this month:

7/23: Stonington Opera House, Stonington
7/24: Space Gallery, Portland
7/26: Rockwood Music Hall, Stage 3, New York, NY
7/27: Sonia, Boston, MA 
7/28: Askew, Providence, RI
7/29: 20 Summers, Truro, MA

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