First Nation Composer Jeremy Dutcher Recovering His ‘Wolastoqey’ Language Through Music

Jeremy Dutcher is a Toronto-based performer, composer, and classically trained operatic tenor. He is also a member of indigenous community, Tobique First Nation, and will release his debut album, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa (Our Maliseet Songs), on April 6th, 2018. (Pre-Order The Album) On March 9th, he released his second single, Pomok naka Poktoinskwes.

Dutcher sheds light on the meaning of the song, saying, “This is the song of the Fisher and the Water Spirit. This was the only archival recording that I recognized from my childhood. It was recovered in the 80s by song carrier Maggie Paul and has been sung in Maliseet communities ever since.”

The album is a collection of “collaborative” compositions that blend Jeremy’s ancestors’ archival recordings with both classical and contemporary influences. The result transcends musical boundaries: dramatic, infused with emotion and reverence for the songs of his home, sweeping piano solos and stunning vocals.

All of the songs are sung in the Wolastoqey language.  There are less than 100 speakers of the language left in Canada.

Jeremy feels strongly this album is an imperative tool to get younger generations engaged with and excited about Wolastoqey.

“If you lose the language, you’re not just losing words; you’re losing an entire way of seeing and experiencing the world from a distinctly indigenous perspective.”

Now 27 years old, Jeremy was studying music years ago in Halifax when he had an epiphany,
“I started to look into the canon of classical music for content that dealt with indigenous issues, or was written by indigenous people,” he recalls, “and there’s not too much….so I decided to find it myself.”

Jeremy poured through archives at the Canadian Museum of History to painstakingly transcribe Wolastoq songs from 100 year old wax cylinder recordings.

“Many of the songs I’d never heard before, because our musical tradition on the East Coast went underground.”

Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa Album Artwork Credit: Matt Barnes Photography

As a measure of the Canadian Government’s Indian Act, all ceremonial songs and dances were banned in public for decades. Jeremy heard ancestral voices singing forgotten songs and stories that had been taken from the Wolastoqiyik generations ago.

“I started to listen to this amazing archive and understood at once that it was my responsibility to bring these back to the people,” he explains, “and think about all the good things these songs could bring into our community if we start to sing them again. Song is just one part of a multifaceted project of reclamation of Wolastoqiyik identity.”

For Jeremy, it was clear early on that this project would be about much more than just recovery. As he listened to each recording, he felt his own musical impulses stirring from deep within. Long days at the archives turned into long nights at the piano, feeling out melodies and phrases, deep in dialogue with the voices of his ancestors.

These “collaborative” compositions, collected together on his debut LP Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, are like nothing you’ve ever heard. Delicate, sublime vocal melodies ring out atop piano lines that cascade through a vibrant range of emotions. The anguish and joy of the past erupt fervently into the present through Jeremy’s bold approach to composition and raw performances.

He’s performed songs from Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa in small concerts and workshops, and on recent tours through Asia and Scandinavia, as well as on the cross-country New Constellations tour. In November 2017, he joined several promising artists and thinkers from indigenous communities on this tour across Canada, an exciting one-night showcase of new music and revolutionary ideas curated by RPM Records and The Basement Revue.

The tour was a natural fit for an advocate and experimenter like Jeremy. RPM Records also released Jeremy’s first official music with Honor Song, a new interpretation of the Mi’kmaq anthem written by George Paul.

Says Jeremy, “We need to be insistent and unapologetic in telling our story on our own terms.”

Jeremy Dutcher 2018 North American dates:

Apr 10 – Toronto, ON – Canadian Opera Company – NOON Performance Time
May 4 – New York, NY – Joe’s Pub
May 25 – Ottawa, ON – First Baptist Church
Jun 9 – Toronto, ON – The Great Hall
Jun 27 – Vancouver, BC – Queer Arts Festival
Jul 4 – Montreal, QC – GESU (Montreal International Jazz Festival)

Jeremy Dutcher on his the context of his album art:

“Ninna-stako was his name.
Her name was Frances.
Mountain Chief of the Blackfoot,
shared songs.
I sit today as object and subject
Of that gaze
Both studier and studied.
All I came to do was time travel
Bringing voices forward
In dances.
We will create our own conversations.

Blackfoot chief Ninna-Stako in 1916. Photo Credit: Frances Desnmore

The iconic image of ethnographer Frances Densmore collecting songs from Blackfoot chief Ninna-Stako in 1916 is one that has followed me through the process of working on Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa; maybe haunted me.

I wanted to flip this image on it’s head and reflect on a contemporary musical self-determination, while interrogating the supposed objectivity of the archival project and how it reinforces detachment from communal rematriation. We are reclaiming it.

I approached Cree visual artist Kent Monkman to help me realize this vision and he gave some stellar advice and even allowed the backdrop to be his stunning work Teaching the Lost (2012). The photo was taken by Matt Barns and I want to thank his amazing team for bringing this photo to life. I also must thank Wolastoq designer Stephanie Labillois for this beautiful custom jacket. Eci-wolinaqot, nmosissol.

Thus, I humbly submit the album artwork for Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa.
Psi-te npomawsuwinwok, kiluwaw yut.

Photo (above) by Matt Barnes Photography: Jeremy Dutcher


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