The Eastern Medicine Singers are a traditional Algonquin drum and vocal group based in Rhode Island. They sing mostly in several Algonquian languages, some of which are nearly extinct, and their dedication to keeping their culture alive and thriving manifests itself not only in their strictly traditional performances but also in their adventurous innovation. A familiar presence at powwows, in concert halls, and on the festival circuit, they played South by Southwest in 2017, where New York-based Israeli avant-garde guitarist and composer Yonatan Gat (also of rock trio Monotonix) spontaneously joined them onstage. This led to a creative partnership, and this summer that partnership produced the collaborative album Medicine Singers. It’s the first release on Stone Tapes, a imprint of Indiana label Joyful Noise run by Gat, and its artistic vision was shaped with insight and guidance from Eastern Medicine Singers founder and bandleader Daryl Black Eagle Jamieson.
The album ensemble, called simply “the Medicine Singers,” combines the Eastern Medicine Singers with group of musicians that includes Gat, Thor Harris and Christopher Pravdica of Swans, Chicago-born trumpeter Jaimie Branch (who passed away in August), drummer Ikue Mori, ambient-music pioneer Laraaji, and Ryan Olson of midwest rock ensemble Gayngs. The music mixes traditional Native drum songs with heavy psych, electronica, spiritual jazz, and rock, and the languages in its lyrics include Ojibwe and the Algonquian Massachusett dialect (which Jamieson told the Fader that only ten people in the world speak). That description doesn’t do it justice, though—with its startling freshness and constant twists and turns, it’s unlike anything I’ve ever heard. “Sunrise (Rumble)” is a swaggering take on the 1958 classic “Rumble” by Link Wray (who was part Shawnee), and its huge, thundering heartbeat commands a reverent awe. “Sanctuary” has a playful jazz breakdown featuring Branch, Laraaji, and experimental composer Gelbart.
Gat and Olson produced the record, and they know when to focus on the avant-garde big guns and when to let the richness and variety of songs and singers take center stage. On “Sunset,” for instance, Gat’s spiraling, shimmering guitar break works like a futuristic echo of the singers’ cry to the sun, and then he steps back as their voices return. The Medicine Singers project is a mutually transformative meeting of cultures with a sound that’s big enough to fill a forest—in the friendly confines of the Empty Bottle, it should be overwhelming.
Medicine Singers Sun 10/2, 8:30 PM, Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western, sold out online but some tickets available at the door, 21+