A shape-shifting of past and present sounds –
songs that reach across generations of nearly forgotten history. (CBC)
The Baumann Centre, 925 Balmoral Road, Victoria, BC
A classically trained operatic tenor and composer, Jeremy Dutcher won the 2018 Polaris Music Prize for his debut album Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa (Our Maliseet Songs).
Performer, composer, activist, musicologist – these roles are all infused into his art. His music, too, transcends boundaries: unapologetically playful in its incorporation of classical influences, full of reverence for the traditional songs of his home, and teeming with the urgency of modern-day struggles of resistance.
The songs on Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa are sung entirely in the language of the Wolastoqiyik, whose traditional lands lay alongside the Wolastoq (Beautiful River), the Maliseet name for the St. John River in New Brunswick.
Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa came out of five years of work as Jeremy Dutcher listened to and transcribed wax-cylinder recordings housed in the archives of the Canadian Museum of History – recordings of his ancestors, captured between 1907 and 1914 by anthropologist William Mechling.
For Dutcher this was an extraordinary way to connect with his ancestors: Getting to witness the life in these recordings, getting to hear my ancestors laugh, tell stories, sing songs ... dance – you can hear them dancing!
Some of these century-old voices emerge on Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, joining in with Dutcher's own singing. The album becomes a conversation with his ancestors – a duet of words and melodies that hadn't been heard for decades. Dutcher explains:
Many of the songs were lost because our musical tradition was suppressed by the Canadian government. I'm doing this work as there's only about a hundred Wolastoqey speakers left. It's crucial that we're using our language because, if you lose the language, you're losing an entire distinct way of experiencing the world.
At right, the album cover for Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa shows Jeremy Dutcher sitting in front of an old wax-cylinder phonograph. The background is the painting Teaching The Lost. by Cree artist Kent Monkman. (Photo: Matt Barns).
When you look at the album cover you can see wax cylinders on the floor, which were what these recordings were collected on, using the phonograph machine in the middle there. And I'm seated in the chair with this traditional jacket on, I wanted to represent that time that these songs were collected.
The album art on Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa is an echo of an iconic 1916 photo (at right), in which Blackfoot chief Mountain Chief (Ninna-Stako) sits, speaking into the trumpetlike recorder, as ethnomusicologist Frances Densmore records his voice for the Smithsonian Institution's Bureau of American Ethnology. Over more than fifty years of studying and preserving Native American music and culture, Densmore collected thousands of recordings.
A startling and often haunting mix of operatic singing and ancient Indigenous songs ... the ... songs take on their own, luminous identity, fusing both traditions while becoming something all their own. Amid orchestral touches and Dutcher's own resonant tenor, the crackly voice of one of his ancestors on the wax recordings will sometimes emerge. Janet Smith, Straight.com