Medicine Singers is an experimental collective that can trace its origins back to a chance encounter between the Eastern Medicine Singers, an Eastern Algonquin powwow group and Israeli-born, New York-based guitarist and producer Yonatan Gat, who invited the group to a spontaneous collaboration on stage at SXSW 2017 after seeing them play outside the venue he was about to play.
That chance meeting led to a five year collaboration that saw Gat and the Eastern Medicine Singers playing festival stages across the US, Canada and Europe — and in many cases, those shows saw the Algonquin powwow group bring powwow to audiences and places that had never heard of it before.
The collective’s highly-anticipated self-titled debut was released last yer through Yonatan Gat’s Stone Tapes, an imprint of Joyful Noise here in the States and through Mothland in Canada. The self-titled album sees the Medicine Singers expanding into a full-fledged experimental supergroup that includes Swans’ Thor Harris and Christopher Pravdica, ambient music pioneer Laraaji, former DNA drummer and no wave icon Ikue Mori and trumpeter Jaimie Branch, a rising star in the world of improvised music, along with contributions from their co-producer and longtime collaborator Yonatan Gat.
Through their live shows and their debut album, the collective creates a spellbinding, mystical musical experience that cycles through a kaleidoscopic array of sounds including psychedelic punk, electronic music, acid jazz, spiritual jazz and a list of others. But, the genre-blurring approach is firmly rooted in the intense, physical power of the power of the powwow drum — and the Eastern Medicine Singers’ deep connection to their ancestral music and connections. The end result is material that lovingly honors and celebrates tradition while boldly breaking free from its restrictions — or in the words of Medicine Singers’ leader Daryl Black Eagle Jamieson: “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.”
In the lead-up to the album’s release, I wrote about two album singles:
“Sunset,” a mesmerizing track centered around an expansive arrangement featuring a modal-like horn line, atmospheric and oscillating synths, the Medicine Singers’ gorgeous, multi-part harmonies, intense and forceful powwow drumming and a Robby Krieger-like guitar solo that slowly builds up into a noisy psychedelic freak out. It’s a lysergic yet deeply mystical journey rooted in traditions that seem older than time itself.
“We play the Sunset song at the end of the day, when the sun goes down. Not many people sing these songs anymore: ‘Sunrise’ and ‘Sunset.’ They were given to our drummer Artie Red Medicine Crippen by the great chief Bright Canoe years ago,” the Medicine Singers explain. “They are ancient vocal songs – a thousand years old perhaps – which have the name of the creator – Yahweh. You hear it throughout the song. It’s an ancient calling to the creator. ‘Sunset’ can open up almost anything. It’s a very special song – magical and powerful. It brings great joy to people when we play it.”
“Sunrise (Rumble)” which saw the collective exploring the influence of indigenous rhythms in rock and is mash-up featuring two distinct parts: “Sunrise,” a traditional powwow song and a unique cover of legendary, Shawnee guitarist Link Wray‘s “Rumble.” Much like its predecessors “Sunrise (Rumble)” is a seamless and lysergic mesh of the modern and the ancient that feels imbued with an innate and powerful mysticism.
“I’m from the Pocasset tribe and not a Shawnee, but I can relate to their struggle,” Medicine Singers’ Daryl Black Eagle Jamieson explains in press notes. “Link Wray put the pain of his people into the music. For me, it was an honor to expand this song, and bring out the tribal aspects with the drum and singing we added.”
The self-titled album’s latest single, “Hawk Song” is a modern powwow favorite written by the collective’s Ray Two Hawks Watson, which seamlessly meshes the Eastern Algonquin tradition with psych rock: the thunderous drumming and harmonic chants of the drummers are paired with Yonatan Gat’s blazing guitar lines. The song is a explosive fireball of joy and thankfulness to the Creator — for both the big and small things: Mother Earth, the sky, the trees, rocks, water, life and perhaps just as important, for this very moment we have here together.
“The guitar turned it into a rock song,” Medicine Singers’ Daryl Black Eagle Jamieson says in press notes. “The two styles mesh together so well, it’s like a fireball taking off, and you can see it in the audience when we play it live.”
Directed by Roy and Gigi Ben Artzi, the accompanying video for “Hawk Song” features intimate, handheld camera shot footage of the collective performing “Hawk Song” in a small, New England-style church: The Eastern Medicine Singers in a circle around the powwow drum, chanting and playing the song’s forceful, propulsive rhythm. Gat and his backing band are just behind them wailing along with them.
The video captures the power and profundity of the collective’s live show — and of the album’s material.