“This is experimental art… We're showing people experimental art from the Eastern Algonquin side of the world.” - Daryl Black Eagle Jamieson
Medicine Singers formed as a collaborative offshoot of the Eastern Medicine Singers, an Eastern Algonquin powwow group that performs traditional and contemporary American Indian music. The project was born from a spontaneous collaboration between guitarist Yonatan Gat and the Eastern Medicine Singers at SXSW 2017. Gat’s swirling psychedelic guitar lines wrapped naturally around the group’s pulsating chants and rhythms. The energy generated from this explosive collaboration has propelled the partnership further, culminating in a full-length release.
With their debut album, Medicine Singers have created a spellbinding musical experience. A daring and ambitious record that celebrates tradition, while boldly breaking away from its restrictions. Bridging multiple dimensions of sound and featuring a remarkable cast of guest artists, including production mastermind Ryan Olson, ambient music pioneer Laraaji, “no wave” icon Ikue Mori, and jaimie branch, a rising star in the world of improvised music.
“I think it's a completely new realm of music,” says Daryl Black Eagle Jamieson, the founder and director of the Eastern Medicine Singers, and a Clan Chief of the Pocasset Wampanoag Tribe of the Pokanoket Nation. Jamieson finds power in the album’s balance of the traditional and the radical. “The power of the guitar with the tribal drums sends this vibe through me that makes me feel alive.”
Powwow music is the foundation of Medicine Singers’ sound. Jamieson’s passion for preserving the culture and language of the Pocasset Wampanoag has been the driving force behind all his work in music. The Eastern Medicine Singers perform primarily in the Massachusett dialect of Algonquin, a language Jamieson studied with the late Clinton Wixon, a venerated tribal leader who was known as one of the last fluent speakers of the Wampanoag language.
2017 was a turning point in the history of the Eastern Medicine Singers. That was the year the group met guitarist Yonatan Gat at South by Southwest. “So we were playing outside at the Spider House bar in Austin, and I kept seeing these guys watching us. After the show, I saw them talking to Ray Two Hawks, and he came back over to me and said, ‘Those guys are rock and roll musicians, and they want us to play with them.’ I wasn’t sure about it, we’d done some collaborations before, but we’d always been more of a traditional drum group.”
After some quick soul searching, Jamieson decided to give it a shot. The results were explosive, and an immediate chemistry was established. Yonatan Gat also took notice of the extreme emotional responses the music provoked. “I remember people were crying during that first show we did together in Austin. With all the crazy music I’ve been involved with, I’m not used to lifting up my head and seeing everybody in the audience shedding tears. It was a very special thing.”
Gat rose to prominence as a member of the Israeli garage/punk band Monotonix. Monotonix were known for their wild live performances, which often saw the band radically deconstructing the traditions of contemporary rock and roll music. Gat immediately found a symbolic connection in the powwow performance style of the Eastern Medicine Singers, where the audience gathers in circular fashion around the powwow drum. “Monotonix broke with tradition, because we just got bored with bands playing on stage. But by breaking away from this modern tradition, we connected to a more ancient tradition.”
After building so much positive energy from their live shows, it was natural for the Eastern Medicine Singers and Gat to formalize their collaboration and document their sound on a full-length recording. The name Medicine Singers was chosen to differentiate the traditional powwow style of the Eastern Medicine Singers which is focused on the Eastern Algonquin language from their collaborative work with musicians of different worlds, including Gat, who stepped forward to produce the album’s sessions, knowing he wanted to capture the communal spirit of creativity he’d observed during the band’s practices. The group decided an improvisation-based approach was the best method to achieve this result.
“The crew on this record is full of talented people,” Gat continued. “You have Ryan Olson throwing production ideas and sounds, Ikue Mori from DNA doing electronics, Laraaji is a guest on zither, Thor and Chris from Swans are playing, and jaimie branch, who is one of the best trumpet players in free jazz playing a beautiful 3 minute solo on ‘Sanctuary’. The only concept was just, ‘Go wild, do your thing.’ Nobody had to cut corners in their playing, or water anything down.”
The album also features guest vocalists representing indigenous nations outside of the Northeastern Woodland tribal area, like Joe Rainey Sr., from the Red Lake Band of Chippewa in Minnesota, and South American vocalist Ian Wapichana, of the Wapishana tribe in Northeast Brazil. “Where else can you get all these different native peoples coming together and singing on an album?”Jamieson asked. “It’s usually either just one style, or another. On this album you have east, west, and south all coming together. That’s why we say it’s medicine.”
Over the course of the LP, the Medicine Singers cycle through a kaleidoscope of sounds, including rock and roll, jazz, and electronic music, but the album is rooted in the intense physical power of the powwow drum. The compositions on the album range from contemporary originals written by the Medicine Singers, to traditional melodies that date back centuries. Jamieson identified his own composition “Daybreak” as a key track on the project. “I took the words from the Algonquin Massachusett dialect, right now there’s less than ten people in the world who speak it.
The provocative clash of sounds and ideas on this record may not sit well with some traditionalists, but Jamieson objects to such concerns. “A symphony orchestra can have a folk singer come and do a piece with them. It's no different for us. This is experimental art. That's what it is. We're showing people experimental art from the Eastern Algonquin side of the world.”
For Jamieson, this album is more than a collection of songs, it’s a vessel of culture, history and language; a symbol of the strength and creativity of the Eastern Algonquin people in contemporary American society. “I want to show people that our Indian culture is just as good as the mainstream white culture that's out there, and that the two can exist together. These two cultures can work together, and blend together. We created something that needs to be out there in the world, to show people how we can work together and make something beautiful.”