Back Settlement Band,
Ojibwe Revival
(independent, 2003)

This is the CD that is getting the most play on my computer these days, which surprises me since it consists of 14 hymns, and they're all sung in the Nishnaabemowin (or native Ojibwe) language. Put simply, this is marvelously evocative and soulful music, that I am finding somehow both stimulating and peaceful at the same time.

The Back Settlement Band is a trio of what I might call middle-aged men (my age, in other words) from the Back Settlement of southwestern Ontario's Walpole Island Reserve, which occupies the delta of the St. Clair River bordering on Michigan. The community's Ojibwe name, Bkejwanong, means "where the waters divide."

Dennis Thomas strums a basic guitar and sings these songs in a laid-back yet soulful tenor, while his comrades Allan Jacobs and Alec Montroy add spare, evocative fills, back beats and counter-melody lines on mandolin and acoustic steel guitar (what I would call a dobro) respectively. Alec also provides tasteful harmony vocals.

The songs are all classic hymns from the Weslyan Methodist tradition, including "A Zhe Q'taum Gooz Yun" (which you may know better as "How Great Thou Art"), "O Think of the Home Over There" and "What Can Wash Away My Stain (nothing but the blood of Jesus)."

Dennis (who appears to be the oldest of the the three men) learned these hymns from his mother, and the liner notes tell us that before she died, she told him: "The only time I will be able to see you is when you sing these songs." No doubt we have Mrs. Thomas to thank for the marvelous soulful quality of these performances. That would work for me.

A bluegrass influence is clearly audible throughout this CD (as you may have guessed by the instrumentation), but there is a thoughtful, moving dignity to the music that I have rarely heard in any genre. Perhaps because, as the liner notes tell us, it's all "steeped in tradition, cultural heritage and dignity." Yet there is a quality to these performances, field recorded by Alec Montroy within the Bkejwanong community itself, that makes me feel that the musicians are not simply playing the music, they are inhabiting it, have somehow been spiritually possessed by it.

Oh heck, I can't do any better than to quote Allan Jacobs from the inside cover of the CD. Even the notes have a wonderful poetic dignity. "Set against a wooded landscape of acoustic instrumentation," he says, "the soul of the music flows like a clear stream through a once pristine Ojibwe territory. It echoes a time past, a time present, and a time yet to come." This is definitely the music I would expect to hear by a clear forest stream.

The Back Settlement trio never succumbs to the temptation to overplay the music, either to speed it up or to increase its complexity. As a result, even though the the CD is 54 minutes long, I am almost always surprised and saddened at how quickly it seems to come to an end. I am always left wanting more.

The good thing about that is that more is apparently on the way. I have it on good authority that the Back Settlement Band is putting the finishing touches on a second CD, which will hopefully be available soon. I hear that Alec also plays ukulele on the new album, too, which is a treat I am truly looking forward to hearing.

We often seem to feel the need to go far afield in search of unique and powerful traditional music -- Brazil, the Congo, Reunion, Okinawa. But here's something homegrown right under my southern-Ontario nose that is as beautiful and integrity-filled as anything I've heard. If I sound enthusiastic, it's because I am.

review by
John Bird

9 January 2009

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