I’ve been listening to Jeremy Dutcher’s debut CD, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa. When I googled to try to find out what that means, the phrase “Our Maliseets Songs” came up.
Wikipedia tells me that “The Wolastoqiyik, or Maliseet are an Algonquian-speaking First Nation of the Wabanaki Confederacy. They are the Indigenous people of the Saint John River.”
I heard some of this music for the first time in a live performance back in April at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre when Dutcher sang & played one of the most powerful noon-hour concerts I’ve yet seen, grabbing a copy of the CD on my way out of the RBA. I’ve been listening & reverberating to the CD ever since. If you’re interested in obtaining it, try here directly from his website.
Dutcher explained some of his subtext, his motivation. I’d never thought about Indigenous languages in terms of numbers of native speakers, but of course this is fundamental to any notion of languages that are understood as “living languages” (given that designation because people speak the language from birth, rather than as an academic exercise) as opposed to those in danger of becoming a “dead language” like Latin or Sanskrit (which are only spoken in the academic sense, as a second, third or fourth language and never from birth). But of course this is precisely the concern underlying the conversation about cultural genocide & the residential schools, where children were forcibly assimilated into our western culture while being stripped of the language & customs with which they were born & are their birthright.
Listening to this CD, it gives a whole new meaning to this idea, when one realizes that song, dance and ritual celebration were also torn away from these children. Dutcher’s album is 100% positive, a celebration of song across generations, as the talented young singer & pianist puts forth the premise that the songs –in whatever form—make the culture live.
I recall the reverence with which Dutcher circled the stage at RBA, softly drumming as he addressed the unseen in our midst as well as the seen. The CD is several songs in different styles, but includes a brief fervent conversation that I keep listening to over and over, a reminder of his project to make the culture live. I paraphrase roughly:
“When you bring the songs back you bring the dances back
You bring the people back
You’re going to bring everything back
Music will bring you back
It will be just like when we first started.”
It’s a gently moving vision of cultural rebirth. His work is informed by spirituality, a deep reverence for those who went before and who come to life in his work.
And speaking of incarnations, Dutcher manages to be several sorts of artist at the same time. While his singing voice is classically trained, we’re in territory closer to something like folk or even popular music, a powerful voice that is more direct and straight-forward than what you usually get from classical singing. I recall the opera of my youth, before the advent of surtitles, when it was normal to hear music in an unfamiliar language without having a clue what it means. I let it wash over me the same way I would listening to Puccini or Verdi, beautiful meaningful sounds.
The resulting creation is a curious blend, suggesting something post-modern in the way he straddles several idioms and cultures, creating a synthesis that is neither this nor that. I sense him throughout, a modern man walking on the land, with a simultaneous awareness of the new occupants of Turtle Island with whom he collaborates, and his own culture. I think of a pragmatic post-modern creation such as the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal at the ROM, a modern building that is attached to a beautiful old structure, allowing us to see old and new at once, both old and new at the same time. Another metaphor I recall is Linda Hutcheon’s notion of the palimpsest, whereby one sees through layers, to view what came before and what is overlaid in the new adaptation. Dutcher sets old songs as though putting diamonds into platinum rings, complete with the occasional sample of the original voice from long ago.
I could also mention an idea from John Ralston Saul, that Canada is a Métis country. The most authentic Canadian music must somehow be a blend, a mix of the cultures we blend in making Canada. I think Dutcher is enacting that blend, striving towards an ideal that is more genuinely Canadian than anything I’ve ever heard.
While I’m thinking of his music as though he’s enacting a kind of crossover, simultaneously new and old, traditional and hybrid, I am less concerned about genre & form than what’s in his heart. Above all we are in the presence of his spirituality, unmistakable throughout this album, working to bring a culture to life.
And Dutcher’s out there, performing his music. This Saturday August 18th he’s at the Grand Theatre, Greater Sudbury, Saturday September 8th at the Northern Arts and Cultural Centre in Yellowknife, Saturday November 3rd in Québec City and Saturday December 15th at The Danforth Music Hall here in Toronto. For tickets and/or information about any of these see https://jeremydutcher.com/tour/