Inside the 'Indigenous futurisms' of Ombiigizi

The musicians behind Zoon and Status/Non-Status teamed up with Broken Social Scene's Kevin Drew for their debut collaborative album.

Zoon and Status/Non-Status team up with Broken Social Scene's Kevin Drew for their debut album

Adam Sturgeon and Daniel Monkman release their debut album as Ombiigizi on Feb. 10. (Courtesy of artists)

Written by Jesse Locke

In the language of Anishinaabemowin, Ombiigizi (om-BEE-ga-ZAY) means "s/he is noisy." That's an apt description for the thunderous sounds of Anishinaabe musicians Adam Sturgeon (Status/Non-Status) and Daniel Monkman (Zoon), who have both cranked their songs up to ear-splitting volumes to amplify family stories and the histories of their culture. 

However, on their new collaborative project's debut album, Sewn Back Together (out Feb. 10), Ombiigizi tears down the walls of distortion that Monkman calls "moccasin gaze" to reveal tender, hushed arrangements of pianos and acoustic guitars.

"We threw our pedal boards in the pool and started from scratch," says Sturgeon on a Zoom call with Monkman and CBC Music. "Ultimately, we can't avoid being ourselves, so I think it worked out."

Sturgeon's music first gained traction in the early 2010s with the DIY releases from his band Whoop-Szo. In the following years, he has worked tirelessly as both an artist and community builder. Recent projects have included the intensely personal 2019 album, Warrior Down, and its 2021 followup EP, 1, 2, 3, 4, 500 Years, accompanied by the name change to Status/Non-Status. In his home on the traditional territory of the Attawandaron, Anishinaabeg, Haudenosaunee, and Lunaapeewak peoples (colonially known as London, Ont.), Sturgeon has worked as artistic director of the Grickle Grass Festival and currently operates the Indigenous-led youth program Rezonance Printing. 

Monkman's musical trajectory is no less inspiring. In an interview with Exclaim!, he shared how he stepped away from his former project the Blisters after struggling with addiction. Bouncing from city to city led him to a rehabilitation centre on the West Coast, where Monkman reconnected with the Ojibwe ​​teachings of the Seven Grandfathers. Diary entries became poems and then songs, as he crafted the mesmerizing sound of Zoon's critically acclaimed and Polaris Prize shortlisted debut album, Bleached Wavves. Monkman has since used his story of recovery to host sessions as a role model for Nunavut youth, explaining to Nunavut News in 2019 how "true happiness is inside our culture and preserving it within ourselves."

The pair of musicians originally crossed paths in 2018. At that time, Monkman says, "we felt like there weren't many First Nations artists into the same stuff as us, so we always talked about collaborating." Shortly after, Sturgeon met Kevin Drew of Broken Social Scene when they were both attending an event for the Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Fund. "I made some snarky comment about the music industry and Kevin beelined over to me," Sturgeon laughs. "We've kind of been friends ever since in an interesting, quirky way."

ZOON | Bleached Wavves | Junos 2021

1 year ago
Duration 6:16
ZOON performs "Bleached Wavves" at CBC Music in Studio at the JUNOS: Reclaimed Session

When Sturgeon and Monkman revisited the idea of recording an album together in summer 2021, Drew offered them a series of sessions at the Bathouse, the studio owned and operated by the Tragically Hip. Bringing along frequent collaborators Eric Lourenço and Andrew McLeod, and with Drew producing, the quartet took a spontaneous approach to songwriting, with mixing engineer Nyles Spencer capturing every moment of impromptu creativity.

"On one of the mornings we were there, Andrew started playing a riff on the grand piano," says Monkman. "Kevin walked by and said we should record it. Then we all jumped in and did our parts, and that ended up as the song 'Spirit in Me.' It's probably my favourite on the album because the whole experience was very new to me, that's for sure."

"Before this, a lot of my songs have been written over a great length of time," adds Sturgeon. "Every little nuance or change becomes a serious thing, you know? I decided not to be like that on this album. It was time to get down to work." 

Sewn Back Together opens with an intimate childhood recollection. "Cherry Coke" was written in tribute to Monkman's father, a residential school survivor who sadly died during the pandemic. Growing up on the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation reserve in Manitoba, Monkman's dad taught him how to save money by keeping it in an empty butter container, which he would use to buy barbecue chips or a cherry cola.

It all comes from a vulnerable place. I don't think I would ever write fake music. I'd rather just do the real stuff!- Daniel Monkman

"It's part of the tradition to honour elders and people that have passed on," says Monkman. "For me, it's cathartic. It's what my mom did for her mom when she passed. My parents would sing songs, and that's part of who I am. It's no different from making a Zoon record, in that sense, because it all comes from a vulnerable place. I don't think I would ever write fake music. I'd rather just do the real stuff!"

The album's first single, "Residential Military," continues to reckon with the story of Sturgeon's grandfather (seen on the cover of Status/Non-Status's Warrior Down). Another residential school survivor, he was forced to give up his Indian status in order to be granted Canadian citizenship and join the military to support his family. With a swirling indie-rock sound reminiscent of Pinback, and evocative lyrical imagery of a birch bark canoe merging onto the freeway, Ombiigizi introduces the concept of "Indigenous futurisms" — looking back to wisdoms of the past to imagine a brighter horizon.

I'm an Indigenous entrepreneur and I'm just trying to paddle my way through it all.​​​​​- Adam Sturgeon

"That song is a reflection on the residential military-industrial complex," says Sturgeon. "It's pretty straightforward, but also an arty-farty way to spew it out. I think the imagery of a birch bark canoe coming onto the highway is representative of how it can sometimes feel to connect our culture to a modern society. I'm an Indigenous entrepreneur and I'm just trying to paddle my way through it all."

Elsewhere on the album, the instrumental "Niiyo Biboonagizi" (dedicated to Sturgeon's four-year-old son, Oda) is akin to the shimmering post-rock of Chicago group Tortoise. The spoken-word passage that emerges from a thicket of riffs on "Birch Bark Paper Trails" brings Slint to mind, while the cycling lyrics of "Spirit in Me" could be a lost song from Akron/Family. The genre-agnostic "Yaweh" and "The Once Child" defy such comparisons, with vocals drenched in AutoTune, the robotic effect typically associated with hip-hop artists like Future and T-Pain (or Cher). 

"Nyles thought it would be funny to use that thing," says Monkman. "At first we were really thrown off by it, but those songs ended up becoming some of my favourites, as well. It's definitely new territory."

Alongside its dedication to Sturgeon's grandfather, Status/Non-Status's Warrior Down includes lyrics about a traumatic event experienced by his family. After releasing that album and discussing it during interviews, Sturgeon realized how painful it can be to repeatedly revisit these memories. Sewn Back Together continues to share deeply personal stories and bring up issues that are rarely discussed, but also uplifts and unites with the joy of creativity. 

"Part of what we're trying to do is continue to move the bar forward and play our little role in whatever the Indigenous music movement is," says Sturgeon. "All of the sonic aspects of this album and its storytelling are part of that, because history has so often placed us into a box. What we're realizing is that we have a lot of diversity and different stories to be told. I like to think of that as a growing circle with one voice."