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This year’s Polaris prizewinner on reviving language through music

Wolastoq opera singer and composer Jeremy Dutcher combines classical music with archival recordings to reimagine his community's traditional songs.

By Glynis Ratcliffe

Jeremy Dutcher is a classically trained opera singer and composer from the Wolastoq nation in New Brunswick. His groundbreaking debut album, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, won the 2018 Polaris Music Prize. Fusing Dutcher’s genre-bending music with archival recordings of his ancestors’ songs, the album is a tribute both to where he comes from and who he is now. It’s also a rallying cry to embrace and resurrect the languages of Indigenous peoples everywhere.

Q: Your album reimagines traditional Wolastoq songs, drawing on century-old phonograph recordings collected by an American anthropologist. What inspired you to embark on this project?

A: Part of my undergrad research was to catalogue and transcribe all of these songs. That’s actually what started me on this journey, doing that work of cataloguing. Because of my studies in western classical music, I really wanted to answer the question of Wolastoq tonality: How does it look, and how does it move? What are the intervals that make most sense to our ears? These are the kinds of things I wanted to get back to.

Finding my voice and being able to say something from that place took a long time. The album was five years in the making, really, from doing the research to the writing and composition and recording.

There were definitely some transformative moments throughout this process. One of them (and you can actually hear it on the album) is a conversation with Wolastoq Elder Maggie Paul around her table, where she informed me that the archived recording [of Wolastoq songs] was there for us to discover. And then going to sit down with it and actually experience it, to hear the voices and try the melodies out myself to see what that would look like.

Q: You’ve said fewer than 100 people currently speak your community’s language as their mother tongue. What role does music play in your effort to preserve it?

A: In the 1970s and ’80s, Maggie Paul went into that archive and brought back a Wolastoq trading song. It was just one of many of our songs, but it left a mark, and it’s still sung today. Some of my first language teachings were in that song. Hearing her sing was such an inroad for me to come to understand what the Wolastoq language has to offer.

Every time I go home, it’s amazing to interact with young people who are energized around language and everything that it means. I feel that speaking our language is a generative act. We come to fully understand the ethos that’s built into the language, an interconnectedness to the world around us. Understanding that ethos shapes your world view. 

"Finding my voice and being able to say something from that place took a long time"

Q: What are your thoughts on the Huron Carol?

A: A couple of years back, my aunt, who’s a language teacher and really wants to get Wolastoqey into the schools, translated all of these Christmas carols into our language — Silent Night, O Holy Night, all of those. One of them was the Huron Carol. It was a way to connect with the youth, because they know these melodies, of course. She asked me to record some of these Christmas songs in our language. Especially with that tune, I got a chance to arrange it in my own way and put my own spin on it — some seventh chords and arpeggios and all this stuff I wanted to bring to it.

You know, Indigenous people are magic. We take and transform stuff that is collected through a lens not our own. It’s sort of what I did with these archives, too — taking something that was collected through an outside lens and then finding the truth and beauty in it and shifting it to something that more accurately reflects our community and how we sing songs.

Q: How can settler Canadians support reconciliation?

A: For me, it’s about relationship building, because I fundamentally believe that the work of reconciliation is not our work to do. I have very little to reconcile. I know my history. I know where I come from. So for me, the responsibility for action lies with settlers and visitors in this place. It’s about what kind of relationships can be built so that we can move forward together.

I think right now we’re so broken in that way, and we have been since contact. There are pathways forward, for sure. We just need to start listening to each other and being a little more honest. And lending a hand, and being kind and loving; it has to be done in love, always. That’s something I’m coming to realize more and more every day — there are many pathways to do the work that needs to be done, but the actual change of it comes through love.

This interview has been edited and condensed. It first appeared in the Observer's December issue with the title "Finding his voice." 

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