Skip to content. | Skip to navigation

Personal tools

Commentaries on this Media!

Al Abaji Gwe, a traditional Wabanaki song

by Ethan Tussey

by Ann Morrison Spinney for IN MEDIA RES

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

excerpt by singer Alice Tomah from my 1995 Sipayik Indian Day

from Al Abaji Gwe (2012)
Creator: Ann Spinney
Distributor: YouTube
Posted by Ethan Tussey