Al Abaji Gwe, a traditional Wabanaki song

Curator's Note

The Wabanaki Confederacy is a political alliance that builds on historical and traditional connections to forge relations in the present. It includes the Abenaki, Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet, and Mi’kmaq nations. Songs and dances are the means of accomplishing important Confederacy protocols, and thus are shared between the nations.

Singer Watie John Akins says Al Abaji Gwe  "is sung to someone that is leaving. It tells them to ‘return back to this place here.’” It exemplifies the hospitality that is a pillar of Wabanaki culture. Welcome ceremonies, including elaborate dances and accompanying songs were described by the first European visitors to Wabanakik (Wabanaki territories, literally “dawn land”) and are still practiced today for official visitors and in public events. Al Abaji Gwe is a valedictory song, the complement of traditional salutary protocols.

The lyrics are typical of Wabanaki dance songs in mixing lexemes with vocables. “Abaji” seems to be a form of the verb “to return” though whether it is a command or a wish (let him/her return) is unclear. The prefix “al” is understood to mean “to this place here” in Penobscot. Passamaquoddy singers use these same syllables although in their language, “ol” means “this place here” while “al” means something like “meandering.” Many traditional Wabanaki songs use old word forms, much as traditional English ballads use archaisms (“why weepest thou”).

Another typically Wabanaki feature is the rhythm of the lyrics, which are swung over a flexible beat kept on hand drum or shakers. The syllable “gwe” is actually the first in the series of vocables that create a medial refrain: gwe, gwe hu no we he. Because the first “gwe” anticipates the strongest beat, it sounds like a suffix of “abaji.” This rhythmic feature is even more evident in other singers’ renditions of the song, such as the excerpt by singer Alice Tomah from my 1995 Sipayik Indian Day field recordings.




Al Abaji Gwe is a contemporary popular song, but no one knows how old it is. Watie's recording is part of a larger project to reclaim traditional songs from archives and publications, where the transcriptions are usually idiosyncratic phonetic renditions. Phonemic grammatical writing systems weren't adopted for Wabanaki languages until relatively recently. I once spent three hours with a singer trying to recapture the words of a short dance song notated by Natalie Curtis Burlin. How traditional songs are used - whether they will be adapted for Native American flute as Rolfe Richter (Passamaquoddy) is doing, or Powwow drumming, or remixed - is a local process taking place within Wabanaki communities, and within the imaginations of individual musicians. I think one of the important points our discussion this week is making is that there is no one "Indigenous Sound" or "Native American Music" - there are many sounds and many musics guided by the many traditions.

Thank you so much for the detailed discussion of this song, which I've heard a lot around powwows and other events in New England. I also appreciate your insistence on the variety of indigenous music, even within one particular group like the Passamaquoddy. One of the reasons I wanted to launch this theme week on sound is that scholars and popular writers tend to focus almost exclusively on Native American *images*--whether in documentary film, stereotypical cartoons, or visual and material arts. In some ways this is same "hegemony of the visual" that is practiced in a lot of arenas at the expense of sound. But as I was reminded recently by Jonathan Sterne, in his very helpful _Sound Studies Reader_, "when W.E.B. DuBois wanted to rethink the role of race in American life, he turned to sound [e.g., slave songs and spirituals] as a key modality" Native American music is so little understood and appreciated (outside, perhaps of popular artists like Carlos Nakai or cliched' expectations of drumming)--but this theme week is helping to introduce us to just a little of the variety of sound, and sound MEDIA, being used by contemporary Native people.

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.