Portland musician Mali Obomsawin is leader of a sextet that is about to go on tour. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

As a child learning to play music, Mali Obomsawin never really doubted that she could make a career of it.

Her father, Tom Obomsawin, is a jazz and blues musician who has played at bars and clubs throughout New England and beyond, not to mention at home in Farmington, the western Maine town where she grew up.

“I didn’t have an example of someone getting rich off it, but my dad was just doing it,” she said. “He was always a working musician, so it seemed attainable. He was a big influence. And still is.”

The 27-year-old is doing it, too. She first found success with the folk trio Lula Wiles when she was still in college, but since that group broke up in 2021, Obomsawin hasn’t broken stride. In the fall, she released her first album as a bandleader, “Sweet Tooth,” and has been busy touring with a six-piece band, the Mali Obomsawin Sextet, on which she plays double bass and sings.

The genre-defying album blends original jazz and rock compositions with ancient Wabanaki songs of her ancestors at Odanak First Nation in Quebec. It premiered in October at the Dimensions in Jazz series at the Portland Conservatory of Music, an annual event organized by jazz promoter Paul Lichter, who has known Obomsawin since she attended Maine Jazz Camp as a teenager.

Lichter said the group’s performance was extraordinary and brought in patrons he’s never seen before.


“I’ve been producing concerts in Portland for more than 35 years, so I feel like I know all the jazz fans in Portland. A lot of the faces I saw were not familiar to me,” he said. “But they were not at disappointed. She brought everyone into how she composed her songs, and she explained the language and the chants. I was so proud of her because I could tell she was doing exactly what she wanted to do musically.”

The Mali Obomsawin Sextet has a mini tour of six shows this month, including one in her hometown of Farmington and another in Portland, where she lives now. The tour is supported in part by a $15,000 grant from South Arts, an Atlanta-based nonprofit arts organization. Obomsawin also received a $15,000 grant last year from the New England Foundation for the Arts to produce her album.

“I feel lucky that I’m in a really supportive, vibrant music community,” she said. “We all know how hard it is to lead projects and pay people. The economic constraints are bad for art, and a lot of organizations recognize that.”

Obomsawin is involved in other projects, too. She’s working on a rock album. She’s flying to Alaska later this year to do shows with an Indigenous orchestra. The pandemic created a bottleneck of creativity.

But between busy and not, she’ll take busy every day.

“I’m so happy that she’s doing it,” Tom Obomsawin said of his daughter. “She’s going to have some bumps I’m sure, but all and all, she’s doing great. Much better than I was at her age, or right now even.”



Obomsawin said her hometown of Farmington may seem like a “random, rural town,” but not when it comes to music.

“They have a really developed musical palate there,” she said.

In school, every student gets a chance to play the violin, so that’s where she started, too. It didn’t take long for her to graduate to the double bass, one of the biggest instruments around.

“I usually say it’s because there is only one of them in any band, so you can stand out,” Obomsawin said.

Tom Obomsawin said he still remembers carrying the giant instrument to and from school.


“She loved it, and it got to the point where she was learning all the chord changes and what to do next,” he said. “I gave her some hints, but her ear just kicked in, and she ran with it.”

She nurtured that love of playing at two summer camps – Maine Jazz Camp and Maine Fiddle Camp. The latter is where she met Isa Burke and Eleanor Buckland, whom she would join to form the band Lula Wiles.

Obomsawin, center, with former Lula Wiles bandmates Eleanor Buckland and Isa Burke. Photo by Laura E. Partain

Steve Muise, a music teacher in Farmington, was Obomsawin’s teacher through middle school and at fiddle camp as well.

“It’s hard to describe the feeling of watching her succeed like this, but I can imagine it’s what a parent might feel at graduation,” Muise said. “Seeing people doing what I love to do out there in the professional world, making connections and carrying on traditions, it’s not the only goal of music program here, but it fills me with such pride.”

Obomsawin graduated from Mt. Blue High School in 2013 and enrolled at Berklee College of Music. Burke and Buckland already were there, and they founded Lula Wiles a short time later.

Obomsawin later went to Dartmouth College to study comparative literature and government and also went through the college’s music program. That’s where she met Taylor Ho Bynam, who became a mentor.


For several years, until the pandemic grounded live music, Obomsawin toured extensively with Lula Wiles, playing bass and singing.

“In theory, we had the same creative role. We were writing songs and singing lead,” she said.

But Obomsawin was writing other stuff, too, that didn’t necessarily fit the style of the band. That was the start of “Sweet Tooth,” a departure stylistically from what she had been doing for many years, but also a return to something more personal.

Growing up in an Indigenous family in a community that didn’t have many like hers, Obomsawin said she “didn’t have the language to understand how unique an experience I was having.”

As she’s gotten older, she’s thought a lot about the power of keeping Indigenous culture, like music, contemporary. People need to be reminded, repeatedly, that it’s not a culture from the past. It’s very much alive.

“Native people have been contributing to modern music and art, I just don’t think they are always getting recognized,” she said.



By the time the pandemic hit, Obomsawin was ready for a break from touring.

Lula Wiles finished what would be its final album during the first year. It was released in May 2021, and the band broke up shortly after that.

Obomsawin moved back to Maine during that time, too, eventually settling in Portland. It gave her time to refocus her career and finish the solo album she’d be working on in pieces for the better part of four years.

“Sweet Tooth” is quite different from the acoustic folk and female harmony sounds that defined Lula Wiles. Obomsawin leaned heavier on improvisational jazz (her influences are Don Cherry, Ornette Coleman and Charlie Haden, among others), a style of music she learned and played as a teenager but didn’t really start composing until college.

“There was a lot of mystique around it, but it really is part of the folk tradition, too. It can often start with a simple melody,” she said.


Tom Obomsawin said he was surprised when he heard his daughter’s latest songs.

“It’s very much out of my genre as a musician, but it’s so unique,” he said.

Obomsawin performing with her sextet. Photo by Nolan Altvater, Passamaquoddy Tribe

Obomsawin has played the songs from “Sweet Tooth” since the fall, but the upcoming shows represent an opportunity to reach a broader audience. Two shows – one in Goshen, Massachusetts, and another in Saratoga Springs, New York – are in areas that have big pockets of Indigenous people.

“Indigenous audiences are never the target audiences for touring bands, often because Native communities are in really remote places,” she said. “But we want Native people to know they are a priority. I want them to know it’s for them.”

It’s not an either-or proposition, though.

“So far, it seems like a lot of non-Native people like my record, too, so that’s been validating,” Obomsawin said. “I feel pretty free to put out whatever I want now, and I think my artistic taste goes vastly beyond what people would consider ‘Indigenous.’ No one thing defines Native sound anyway.”


Those who have known her since she first started playing say her confidence has caught up with her ability and hard work.

“There is always a paternalistic feeling for kids who come through (Maine Jazz Camp),” said Lichter. “And the music she’s making now and the band she’s put together, it’s just amazing to see.”

Muise agreed, but he had another story to share about Obomsawin.

A handful of years ago, she had an upright bass that she was planning to unload before she went to college. She called it Bertha.

Rather than sell, Obomsawin decided to donate the instrument to the Mt. Blue school music department.

“It was better than anything we had in our fleet,” Muise said.


Several students have gone on to play it. They call it Bertha, too.

“Had she sold it, that could have been honest to goodness rent money for her, and she did this instead,” Muise said. “I think that speaks to her success as a citizen.”

Obomsawin, who has lived in Boston and New York in her post-college years, said she’s happy to be back in Maine and is committed to staying.

“I think I feel a level of resentment for the cultural hegemony big cities have in our regions,” she said. “We need to invest in smaller markets. There was a time in American history where there were unique hubs and scenes, and you didn’t need to move to New York to experience things.”

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