The systems of the colonized Western world tend to put things in boxes. We categorize and separate music by genre. We separate politics from emotion from community from art. Mali Obomsawin — a singer-songwriter, upright and electric bassist, community organizer and activist — resists and explodes the boxes by working between genres and creating spaces that are deeply political.
“We think about folks being political at a protest or a presentation and about songwriters writing about their feelings,” says Obomsawin. “But can’t we have feelings that have to do with living in a settler colony and a screwed-up world?”
Obomsawin, who has spent a lot of time in folk, country, and rock scenes, has found a lot of that music to be empty of such questions. “I’m really trying to change the paradigm about what the singer-songwriter can write expressively and abstractly about,” says Obomsawin.
Obomsawin began writing and performing provocative music as a member of Lula Wiles, a touring folk band composed of Obomsawin and two college friends, Eleanor Buckland and Isa Burke. The three met at Dartmouth.
In “Good Old American Values,” a song released on Lula Wiles’s 2019 album, a whining fiddle, a simple chord progression laid out on the acoustic guitar, Obomsawin’s understated bass line, and three-part vocal harmony work together to play right into an old-timey American folk music tradition.
But the song’s sweetly sung lyrics are scathing, laying bare the pillars holding up the American empire: “Trusty American tycoons/ kickin’ their feet up in Cancun/ Good old American values/ Conquest, she looks best in costume/ But by the end of the day there’s a fortune to be made/ On those good old American values.”
Until recently, Obomsawin had been able to write about settler colonialism only as part of a band. Within the last year, each member of the band has struck out on individual careers. Songwriting as a solo act has allowed Obomsawin to delve more deeply into the experience of an indigenous person of the Wabanaki Confederacy in a settler colonial state, which Obomsawin does not share with the other members of Lula Wiles.
In a summer tour of the Northeast, which includes a concert at Truro Vineyards on Friday, July 29, Obomsawin is playing a repertoire of songs with a full band, this time venturing into rock music, though not confined to any one genre. Obomsawin says the tour is an experiment in creating a space for a diverse group of people to come together and feel the emotions of living under the American empire at this moment.
The band backing up Obomsawin on the tour is a diverse quartet who Obomsawin met during the “Round Up Tour” in spring 2022, a concert series spotlighting queer country musicians. The eclectic background of their bandmates has allowed for some exciting onstage improvisation, Obomsawin says.
During the pandemic, touring gigs on hold, Obomsawin co-founded a nonprofit called the Bomazeen Land Trust, an indigenous organization in Wabanaki territory (labeled Maine on maps of the U.S.) not far from where Obomsawin grew up. The organization works for land recovery and to build food sovereignty infrastructure for the tribal community and for a “larger network” of Black and brown community members.
Obomsawin’s work as a community organizer and musician may stem from the same urge: to connect and support communities of people.
“The bass is the best instrument because it plays such a supportive role,” Obomsawin says. “It connects with my community organizer side, because I just want to be the link that supports the next link in the chain.”
About the upcoming Truro concert, Obomsawin says, “I am honored to be performing in Mashpee Wampanoag territory, and I hope that community and everyone else who wants to feel their feelings about living in an empire feels welcome.”
Empire of Feelings
The event: Mali Obomsawin in concert
The time: Friday, July 29, 7 p.m.
The place: Truro Vineyards, 11 Shore Road
The cost: $30 at trurovineyardsofcapecod.com