Published Apr 16, 2018On his innovative debut album, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, Jeremy Dutcher combines his classical music background — he's a trained operatic tenor — with traditional songs from Wolastoq First Nation communities that were recorded over 100 years ago and preserved on wax cylinders at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, QC.
In his fourth year of studies at Dalhousie in Halifax, NS, Dutcher switched from music into anthropology in order to do field research in his community (he's from the Tobique First Nation, one of six Wolastoqiyik or Maliseet Nation reserves in New Brunswick); it was during these interviews that Dutcher's elder, Maggie Paul, whom he has known since childhood, planted the idea to visit the archives and learn traditional Wolastoqiyik songs. "I talked to her about how she experienced music growing up in the community," Dutcher says, "but also the work she did reclaiming it."
Under the Indian Act of 1876 "there wasn't a lot of space for people's practice of culture," Dutcher says. "My mom and her mother grew up in a generation when it was illegal [and after changes to the Indian Act in 1951, otherwise discouraged] to practice Indigenous culture. As Maggie says, 'Our songs weren't safe so they had to go underground. They had to go away for a while.'"
The recordings that Dutcher uses on Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa were recorded by an anthropologist named William H. Mechling, at a time when the prevalent Colonialist attitude was that Indigenous culture and language was dying.
"These people were commissioned by universities to go into communities because, around the turn of the century, there was this idea that Indigenous people are dying off and we need to go in and save, preserve and document their culture," Dutcher says. "Reading this guy's field notes, it's pretty clear what he thinks of the people, the state of their culture, where it's headed — not hopeful. 'None of the children know the songs, so within a generation or so they will be gone. They will never be sung again.'"
Dutcher's feelings about Mechling are complicated. "I'm not a big fan of him," Dutcher says, pointing out that Mechling's work was "heavily mediated": for example, in the seven years that Mechling was in Wolastoq communities, he never recorded any women. "I'm grateful for his work," Dutcher says, "but he gets centred as a point of interest. I have no interest in centring his voice again. It's part of the story but people want to know, 'Who is this man who went into the community?'
"It was interesting to me to figure out where I fit into that paradigm of subject and object, cause I'm both a researcher and a community member," Dutcher says. He plays with that idea in the brilliant artwork for Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, positioning himself on one side of the phonograph on one side of the album and the other side on the flip, in a recreation of what these anthropological recordings looked like around the time, with a painting by Kent Monkman as the backdrop. (Monkman saw Dutcher perform at an ImagineNATIVE gala and offered to help Dutcher with artwork for his album.)
"In music school, I was looking for ways to blend who I was as an Indigenous person with Western classical music," Dutcher says. "I looked through the cannon of proper classical music to find if there was music by or about Indigenous people, and there wasn't much. What there was, was a gaze of seeing these people as other, and stereotypically creating music that sounds 'native.' A whole generation of composers in the classical cannon around the turn of the century called the Indianist composers pushed the idea that if you want to have folk music from this place, American or Canadian music has to come from enslaved black people or from Indigenous people. But the part where he said, 'Go take that music,' I don't agree with that part.
"For me [this project] was about challenging that paradigm and the way things have worked in the past and finally telling our own stories from our own perspectives. I think it can't be overstated how important that is."
Dutcher recently performed a free lunchtime concert at the Canadian Opera Company, but points out that during Canada 150 celebrations last year, they were one of the cultural institutions that got it wrong by not consulting Indigenous communities ahead of time about their programming. They re-staged Louis Riel, which was written in 1967 about the Métis leader. "The composer was using field recordings from BC as source recordings for the opera — from a completely different group of people," Dutcher says. "We told them 'You have to do better if you don't want us to protest or boycott your institution.'"
Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa is an album, but it's also more than that. It's part of Dutcher's work in helping to revive the Wolastoqey language, and to teach traditional songs to younger community members. It's already happening: "people back home are messaging me asking 'How do I learn this song?" Dutcher says.
"Because the source material is from antiquity, it can get lumped into history. But for me this work, these songs, they tackle current issues. When I'm talking about water in the lyrics, government accountability. These are not things I am reading from a book; we experience them every day. It's very frustrating when things get reinforced as past. That allows us to ignore what is actually happening currently. It allows us to romanticize what has happened and the lifestyles that we might have lived in favour of ignoring the fact that boiled water advisories are still existent in this country and we haven't done work since Trudeau has been elected."
There are currently fewer than 100 Wolastoqey speakers in Canada, but Dutcher is hopeful. "The last few years have been really rough," he says, "in my family we lost three speakers: my grandmother, my great aunt and my aunt. They all carried with them that understanding of the world in the language. When we lose a language we don't just lose words, right?
"We now have immersion programs in our schools. We're in a very precarious place now with the language. It's considered severely endangered. This is the generation that it needs to be able to survive, it needs to come back. I hope this album is part of this work but by no means is it the crux of the work."
Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa is an independent release, out now.