Screenshot from the video for the song “Medicine,” made by Gigi Ben Artzi, featuring Yonatan Gat and the Eastern Medicine Singers. “Medicine” comes off Gat’s album Universalists.
You never know when a life-changing moment will happen. For musician Yonatan Gat and members of the Eastern Medicine Singers, a chance encounter at the 2017 South by Southwest (SXSW) Music Festival in Austin, Tex., has led to a unique continuing collaboration that melds experimental and powwow music in a way that is simultaneously ancient and contemporary, energizing and hypnotic.
Fans of Gat and the Medicine Singers will be happy to know they are performing at this year’s Vancouver Folk Music Festival, which runs July 14-16 at Jericho Beach Park. They will be joined by Daniel Monkman (Zoon), an experimental Anishinaabe musician from Toronto (Tkaronto), and local oud player and guitarist Gord Grdina, who also mixes multiple musical styles. For newcomers to Medicine Singers’ music, definitely go down the internet rabbit hole. Chances are that you’ll want the in-person experience, to be immersed in the sound.
The Eastern Medicine Singers are an Algonquin drum group from Rhode Island “dedicated to keeping the eastern woodlands American Indian culture alive.” They sing and drum in the language of Massachuset and Wampanoag dialect, and have produced several CDs together. To differentiate from their traditional powwow style, they call themselves Medicine Singers for collaborative projects with musicians of other traditions, like Gat. Their debut full-length album in this capacity is the self-titled Medicine Singers, which came out in 2022 on Stone Tapes, a sub-label of Joyful Noise, and Mothland in Canada.
“The result is a spellbinding musical experience, cycling through a kaleidoscope of sounds, from psychedelic punk to spiritual jazz and electronic music,” reads the description on Joyful Noise’s website. “But the genre-smashing album remains firmly rooted in the intense physical power of the powwow drum and the Medicine Singers’ connection to their ancestral music, creating a daring and ambitious record that celebrates tradition, while boldly breaking away from its restrictions or, in the words of Medicine Singers’ leader Daryl Black Eagle Jamieson: ‘These two cultures can work together, and blend together, to show people how we can work together and make something beautiful.’”
Gat is accustomed to these kinds of partnerships and musical innovation. In Israel, he was part of the punk band Monotonix. In the United States, he has released a few full-length albums, each more varied than the last, with the latest being American Quartet (Stone Tapes, 2022), described as a “punk slash-and-burn reimagining of one of the defining works of the Western classical canon – Antonín Dvořák’s legendary string quartet – written while Dvořák was, like Gat, an expatriate living in New York City.”
A good place to start your exploration of Gat and the Medicine Singers is by watching the video of the 2018 track “Medicine,” which was included on Gat’s second album, Universalists (Joyful Noise, 2018). The fruit of an impromptu recording session, this release caught a larger public’s imagination and the rest, to be cliché, is history – yet continues to be groundbreaking.
The Jewish Independent had the chance to talk with Gat via email this week.
JI: What was it about the Medicine Singers’ performance/repertoire at SXSW 2017 that so mesmerized you?
YG: I was playing a show in a club during SXSW and Eastern Medicine Singers were playing outside. I didn’t know them personally and my band were watching them outside just before we went on. I thought their style (six people powerfully hitting a drum and singing call-and-response vocals) could mesh well with my trio and, also, just like them, we played on the floor in the middle of the audience. So, after they were done playing, I invited them to sit in with us. They famously said no at first and then changed their mind after they heard our music.
Our improvisation style leaves a lot of room for new musicians to join and freely do their thing. I think Eastern Medicine Singers noticed that, too, and when they joined us – it quickly became one of the most incredible shows we’ve ever played. The audience was feeling that as well. When I looked up, I noticed everyone in the crowd was crying, and that’s how our collaboration began, and we’ve been touring nonstop around the world since 2017.
JI: In an interview, you talked about taking piano lessons as a kid and, even then, improvising. What do you love about improvising?
YG: I took piano lessons as a kid but I never cared about learning to read sheet music. I just wanted to improvise. At some point, I started playing bass, but when we did Monotonix, we wanted a trio of guitar-drums-vocals, so I moved to a 77 Fender Mustang tuned two tones down to C with bass strings running through a custom-made humbucker pickup to make it sound more low-endy. I learned to play the harmony on the open strings while doing the lead on the highs.
We played 1,000 shows that way with Monotonix and I discovered myself as a guitarist along the way. I never practised or cared about technique, but being the only instrument except drums made me work hard and grow as a player. When I started my own band, I was able to build it around improvisation, which helped me learn even more about myself as a musician and human. Improvisation doesn’t have to be confined to jazz, long solos or anything like that – it’s more a way to live life, to respond to the world around you, get to know yourself better every night.
JI: From where do you draw inspiration for your compositions?
YG: When we record, we like to create a zone that’s radically free, where it’s all about the musician’s self-expression as it relates to the collective and we just let the tapes roll and have fun with it. Our studio days are very fun and wild and free. We also record other situations – practices, soundchecks, hangs. Sometimes, we record in some of the best or most interesting studios in the world, sometimes we record on iPhones or broken tape machines someone left behind.
It doesn’t matter what it is, we just gather material (usually hours of music) and then the process of editing begins, which is when the “composition” happens. In that way, most of the writing is actually the editing. Everything else is just about having a good time and making sure every musician gets documented the way they envisioned.
JI: You have played in Vancouver before. What are you most looking forward to on this upcoming visit?
YG: I was always lucky to play inspiring shows in Vancouver. My first time in town was a wild DIY punk show in a place called Emergency Room back in ’08. People were going crazy, falling on the band (we were playing on the floor). That vibe just continued to Biltmore Cabaret, where we played so many times after that. Just a sweaty haze with everyone losing their minds and melting into one another.
The last time I was in town was for Vancouver Jazz Fest back in 2019 with Medicine Singers. That was fun. I’m not used to playing jazz fests (they probably think we’re too loud or something) but it was so cool to play to an audience that was following the instrumental parts and appreciating the playing that comes with the freedom and energy.
Vancouver Folk will be a special one for sure. We don’t often play on the floor nowadays, but Medicine Singers transcend the stage. This show really creates a kind of connection between audience and musicians I’ve never seen before. It still has all the magic we discovered in 2017, the first time we played together.
My experience working and learning from Medicine Singers led us to start a label together, Stone Tapes, which is more like a community of musicians, or a collective. I think that represents what we do in the best way possible, and I’m looking forward to coming back to Vancouver and backing Medicine Singers along with other musicians from that collective.
For the full Vancouver Folk Music Festival lineup and tickets, visit thefestival.bc.ca.