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Indigenous-inspired jazz comes to CSUMB March 1

Mali Obomsawin

Mali Obomsawin will perform March 1 at CSUMB's Music Hall. | Photo by Jared and Abby Lank

February 29, 2024

By Mark Muckenfuss

Cal State Monterey Bay is the third and final stop of a West Coast tour by Mali Obomsawin and her jazz trio. The group will play a free concert at the Music Hall (Building 30) Friday, March 1, at 7 p.m.

Obomsawin’s tour is in support of “Sweet Tooth,” her October 2022 debut album of music either directly tied to, or inspired by, her indigenous roots. 

“It’s a collection of songs and compositions that come from Odanak First Nation in Southern Quebec,” Obomsawin said. “Some come from source recordings. Some are still performed and some are inspired by conversations.”

Obomsawin is a bassist. She’ll be performing with guitarist Magdalena Abrego and sax player Allison Burik. 

“Sweet Tooth” received international acclaim upon its release. It was included on Best of the Year lists from The Guardian, National Public Radio and JazzTimes. The music melds chorale-like spirituals, folk melodies and post-Albert Ayler free jazz.

Obomsawin said she was inspired by Canadian composer Jeremy Dutcher, who has used source recordings of indigenous music in his classical compositions. Incorporating such music into a jazz framework was more natural than it might seem, Obomsawin said. The type of improvisation that takes place in oral traditions, as songs are handed down, is a central component of jazz. Indigenous musicians, she said, are a part of jazz history.

“There were a lot of prominent indigenous jazz musicians in the early days, and throughout the evolution of the music,” she said. “Mildred Bailey was the first woman to sing with a big band.”

Bailey toured with the Paul Whiteman orchestra in the 1930s. Other indigenous jazz musicians she cites include bassist Oscar Pettiford, sax player Jim Pepper, trumpeter Don Cherry and Louis Armstrong’s trombonist Big Chief Russell Moore.

“I feel excited to get to learn more about the history and how relevant we have been to jazz,” Obomsawin said. “People really don’t know about that influence.”

CSUMB music professor Althea SullyCole organized the concert and spent some time helping the trio record some music in the CSUMB Music Hall studio. She met Obomsawin through the bassist’s collaboration with Bill Cole, a jazz musician, ethnomusicologist and SullyCole’s father. 

SullyCole said other musical events are on tap, including a concert by faculty composers at 7 p.m.,  April 27 in the Music Hall,  and a spring chorale at 5 p.m., April 28, in the Music Hall, followed by a performance by South African guitarist Derek Gripper at 7 p.m. in the World Theater.