Jeremy Dutcher's music isn’t bound by any one specific definition. On his new album, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa (Our Maliseets Songs), he seamlessly fuses traditional Wolastoqiyik melodies with classical compositions and electronic music, but it’s entirely influenced by Dutcher’s home and community of Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick. “For me, this music belongs on the East coast, because that’s where I come from,” he says.
Dutcher grew up in a musical family (his three older brothers are all active artists), with music serving as a tie to community, identity and language. He is deeply conscious of the power of the latter, as there are less than 100 speakers of Wolostoqey, an Algonquian First Nation language, today. “When my mom started in the day schools, Wolostoqey was the only language that she knew,” says Dutcher. After going through the school system, she became more fluent in English. “Within one generation it went from an entire community of people that speak the language to now mostly elders who speak it,” says Dutcher. “You see how the schools isolated children from their families and how that created a culture of shame around their own language and identity.”
For the opening track, “Lintuwakon ‘ciw Mehcinut (Death Chant),” off his upcoming album Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, to be released April 6th, the future meets the past, as Dutcher’s resonant operatic voice is paired with a recording made over 110 years ago of a speech by Wolastoqiyik ancestor Jim Paul, on death and what comes after. Layered with crystalline strings and booming horns, the result sounds grandiose yet intimate. For the classically trained composer, vocalist and musicologist, work on this album began when Maggie Paul, his elder, asked him to listen to the archived music and language of the Wolastoq nation from over a century ago. “Our elders will do that,” he says. “They’ll give you a little challenge—plant a seed and they’ll see where you’ll take it.”
Dutcher then headed to the National Museum of History, and for two weeks straight he researched and listened to hundreds of wax cylinder recordings, made by anthropologist William H. Mechling. “To sit down and hear these recordings was a transformative experience,” says Dutcher. It also became the foundation of his album. He transcribed the recordings and started to build arrangements around them. “I sat at my piano, singing these melodies over and over again, seeing where the melodies land and what tonalities complement the archived pieces,” he says.
Dutcher adds that the Wolastoqiyik recording for “Lintuwakon ‘ciw Mehcinut” was the clearest out of all the recordings, but that wasn’t the sole reason he chose it as the first song on the album. “In the period around the time these songs were collected, there were a lot of what I call death narratives or the idea of Indigenous people as fading people,” says Dutcher. “I wanted to challenge that stereotype and say, ‘No, we’re here, we’ve been here. We’re still doing it’… and challenge that idea of death.” “Lintuwakon ‘ciw Mehcinut” is also a celebration and examination of non-finality in death. “I think that in our way of knowing, we understand death a little differently from a Western way of thinking about it,” he says. “Mehcinut is an interrogation of all of those things, thinking about the celebration of life and not really buying into the sadness of death.”
Through his music and his activism, Dutcher is always looking for a new way forward while being informed by the past. “I’ve seen how the language has transformed lives,” he says. “The act of speaking is sacred.” Currently, he’s working on a curriculum with the department of education in New Brunswick around incorporating Wolostoqey into the schools. “We lose a lot when we’re not talking and addressing current issues. For instance, my community was just put on the boiling water advisory,” he says to deal with the ongoing water crisis.
Just as important for Dutcher, however, is bringing it back home for his family to see how far he and their culture has come. “The first time my mom came to my show, there’s a moment at the end when people get up and clap and I could tell it really affected her,” he says. “For her it was unfathomable that a room full of non-Indigenous people would not only be interested but actively excited about our language and culture," Dutcher says. "I was very intentional in making sure this record was in my language because I think it says something really strong about where we’re going. But it’s also to honour my mom. The fact that she wasn’t able in her generation, to do what I am doing I do today."
Veronica Zaretski is a writer based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter.