2019 Grammys

Jeremy Dutcher Aims to Disrupt 'Anglo-Centric Music Narrative' With Wolastoq-Language Album: Premiere

Matt Barnes
Jeremy Dutcher

It is said that music is the universal language, but Toronto-based First Nations tenor and pianist Jeremy Dutcher has created an accessible album in his native Wolastoq, or Maliseet, a language spoken today in Canada by an estimated 600 people. Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, out Friday (April 6), is an 11-song fusion of his ancestors’ archival recordings and his own classical and pop influences, intended to disrupt the “bilingual Anglo-centric Canadian music narrative,” he tells Billboard.

The 27-year-old -- who is a member of the Tobique First Nation in northwestern New Brunswick, and studied music in Halifax, Nova Scotia -- doesn’t believe this music should be “collecting dust on a museum shelf,” so he took five years to painstakingly put this album together, transcribing Wolastoq songs more than a century-old — once banned from being performed in public due to the Canadian government’s discriminatory Indian Act from 1876 — to re-introduce them to the world.

Dutcher sat down with Billboard over sweetgrass tea at Toronto’s NishDish, a traditional Anishinaabe restaurant, to chat about the album, give us a history lesson — and teach us some Wolastoq language basics. Be sure to try them on him if you see his show in New York at Joe’s Pub, May 4.

To start with, there’s about 60 different Aboriginal languages Canada and Cree is the biggest with 83,000 speakers, according to Statistic Canada, 2011.

Cree is the biggest linguistic group, for sure, followed by Anishinaabemowin, which is the Ojibway [19,000], or what’s spoken around here, and then Inuktitut.

Do they have commonalities?

Oh yeah. It’s like the language groups in Europe. Think about the romantic languages like French and Italian, they’re so close together because geographically they came out of the same area. It’s similar here too, I can’t fully understand what they speak here, but you notice certain words, like our word for “bear” is the same.

Was it important in your family to learn your native language?

Definitely. I’m from New Brunswick originally, so that’s on the east coast of Canada. My mother spoke the language growing up, and she understood the importance of passing that on to us,

If I’m going to be talking to you about an album you made to preserve and expand your language, then I should know how to pronounce Wolastoq.

Wool-las-took. The language is Wolastoqey wool-las-two-gway. The name of the river is Wolastoq and the name of my people, “The People of the River,” is Wolastoqiyik, [pronounced] wool-las-two-wi-ig, and that’s the first word of the record title. So the name of the record is Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa — wool-las-two-wi-ig lint-two-wah-gun-ah-wa.

How does it compare to the English language in terms of consonants and vowels, and how many words you have?

It came out of a different hemisphere than English did, so even the ways that we think about the world and how we position ourselves within the world are different. It’s hard to explain for somebody that doesn’t speak the language, but it’s just a totally different positionality in how we see the world in the language. That’s why it’s important for us to hang on to that too. 

The elders say that our language comes from the land; it’s intimately tied. You see a tree, but I don’t see a tree; I see a ƏpƏsiyik [pron. oposiyik]. I see the world in a different way based on the way that I speak and the way that I experience things. We have like 20 different words to describe that tree — in the bark, in certain times of season. So much to say that there’s an intimate relationship between language and land.

For me, as a young person with access to that language, a lot of young people don’t speak my language in our community, I was very fortunate in that my mother was able to pass on some, and through this record I’ve been able to double down on my efforts in revitalizing our language and I’ve been working with our stories, and telling our stories in the language.

Your family and the elders must be thrilled.

I’ve been well supported. My aunt is a language teacher and she’s been really encouraging me to do this work. I also apprenticed under a song carrier in our territory [Maggie Paul] who knows all about old songs and was able to teach me. That’s how it’s always been, the elders and older folks they see the young people and how they interact and what their interests are and they try to foster that.

Often the youth are given a challenge or a test by the older people in their community and then there’s no pressure after that. They just sit back and they watch. So I got one of these challenges, because this elder [Maggie Paul] in my community knew that I was really interested in our music and the old songs, and she said, "If you really want to know about our old traditional songs, you need to go to the museum [Museum of Canada History in Gatineau, Quebec]; you need to go to the archive, and spend some time there, because that’s where the real stuff is," and then never mentioned it again, but I knew at that time "this is what I have to do."

You have an incredible voice. Opera was your genre of choice. Not rock. Not pop. Not common for a young person.

I guess so. I just stumbled into the realm of classical music, I was an eccentric child, I was put into theatre when I was young. As I was doing theater in high school, I went to my teachers and I said, "If I wanted to take this to the next level, to take it more seriously, what would I do?" They said you could go to theater school or there’s also classical music too. I didn’t really have a relationship to classical music. I came to it much later in life. And I came to the piano when I was maybe 17. Self-taught too. But the singing is what I went to school for.

Opera, of course, is often sung in Italian and its audience often doesn’t understand the language but can be moved by the emotion and power of the sounds. Similar to your music. You’ve only got 500-600 people that will understand this album, but you’re releasing it to the world. When you were contemporizing — for lack of a better word — these Wolastoq songs, were you thinking about how you would communicate the meaning to non-speakers?

Because I was in this classical world within the opera sphere, where most people go to an opera and they don’t know the language, they have to experience it purely on a musical level. That is sometimes the most pure experience of music, and singing the language never really worried me.

What are some of the topics? 

For me, it was taking what the songs were about, and finding ways to incorporate that meaning into what I was doing in songs. For example, the ninth song of the record, which is called "Fisher and the Water Spirit," or "Pomok Naka Poktoinskwes" that one is based on the water. It’s telling the story about water. I tried to incorporate that into how I was creating the music, so what does water sound like on a piano, or what does water sound like on a drum set? Finding ways to incorporate the messages and the world of the piece into the arrangements that I was writing.

Some of them are political. Number six in my language is kamahcin. The track is called "Sakomawit." That means the installation of a new chief and that’s the song that would be sung. It’s also important to mention that our songs — I was taught — we don’t sing them for fun; our songs all are for a purpose, and they’re all based on activities. Most of these songs, actually, are just singing about what they’re doing. So the next song, "Oqiton," is for the canoe, so that would be the song that would be sung as you go down the river on the canoe. So they’re all action-based.

Did you know these songs growing up?

This is why I’m so passionate about doing this — because I didn’t.

So if you were out on a canoe, you weren’t singing that?

I was worried about paddling [laughs]. That’s why for me it’s so important to bring these old wax songs into my community because nobody knew about them. It was only the older people that actually knew these songs. For me, it was really important to show these melodies on the record. You can hear these old voices coming through as well and that, for me, creates a conversation between generations and through time.

I actually have an Edison Amberola and wax cylinders that I got in Halifax at an antique shop when I was there for the Juno Awards years ago, and I had it restored. Did you have to buy one to listen to the original recordings?

No I didn’t. I went to the museum in Ottawa and spent two weeks there. They originally recorded on a wax cylinder, and then in the '80s they were transferred onto reel to reel tapes, and since then they’ve been digitized. But to be able to be in a space with those wax cylinders I think about how they travelled — these were in the hands of my great-great grandparents.

The anthropologist that recorded them between 1907 and 1913, he lived among my people for about 7 years. His name was William Mechling. He was affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania. He was a student of this famous anthropologist named Franz Boas, who’s quite iconic in this ethnomusicology world. 

Do you know of Philip LeSourd, a linguist and anthropologist I came across in my research for this interview [an expert on Wolastoqiyik/Maliseet-Passamaquoddy]?

He worked a ton on our stories. Some of the stories that I work with, he actually collected them.  He did the same thing as William Mechling, the guy who collected these songs was doing. Was basically going in the community and asking informants and people to tell him the history and stories. He would record them and then take them to the museum and there’s where they would stay. 

For me, that’s a problem though because this material belongs to the people, because that’s where it comes from. It doesn’t belong collecting dust on a museum shelf. Because I was able to go into the museum and witness so many beautiful things in the archives—because it wasn’t only music; he also collected stories — he took photographs that I used as part of the project too—I feel it’s my job to go back to my people, and to say, "Here. Look at this. How amazing is this that we have this record from 110 years ago, over a century ago, that we can draw on?" I find so much strength in those images, seeing those people, and the way that they struggled. These people were living in abject poverty and they still survived and they still carried their traditions on. So for me, plugging into that strength is the only way that we’re going to ever go anywhere or move forward. It seems like a heavy concept, but for me its very real, and I do this work for the young people in my community.

How do the young people feel? Do they care? Or are they on the internet and Instagram and Snapchat and Facebook?

You’re not going to reach everyone. I realized that very early, especially given my musical background in traditional and classical music. Even that is a non-starter for people, which is fine, but I feel like in the writing of this album, I could have written a very difficult to listen to, atonal, very contemporary classical piece around these, but for me it was about accessibility. So I wrote them for people to enjoy them and listen to them. Some are a little tough and crunchy and minor, but still it was always going back to "who I’m doing this work for?" And it was always about making it accessible for the young people. So I worked with a producer from Montreal [Bufflo] who brought in some electric soundscapes. There’s some beats, I had “drops” on the record, which I never thought would happen.

What are you going to be doing with this album to promote it and get it out there? Do you expect people to learn the language?

Yes. I do, 100%. Why not? We learned yours. For me, it’s less about asking people to learn a new language and more about disrupting the bilingual Anglo-centric Canadian music narrative. Up until this point, why have there been no popular records in my language?

You know the answer to that. It took you 5 years and a lot of research.

I guess so, but I had the privilege and I had the skills that allowed to me to do that. And I always think that’s such a big responsibility for me because I have supportive family and they put me in lessons and theatre, and my parents moved away from a reserve very intentionally because they had four kids and they wanted them to have opportunity. I don’t think people really understand what lack of opportunity there is in those communities, to express and to actualize, and so we moved to Fredericton and I would be schooled in Fredericton, and then we’d spend our summers back there.

What’s the population on the reserve?

The population on the reserve is about 800. I think it’s bigger now, and we’re the fastest growing population in the country, indigenous people, so I’m sure it’s much higher now.

How will you be performing this album?

We’re building that show right now, and working with a couple of artists right now who will help me to realize the album [Japanese Canadian soprano Teiya Kasahara, Metis fiddle player Sierra Noble, percussionist Brandon Valdivia, just to name a few] because up until now it’s been solo piano with me singing at the piano, and then I also have onstage with me, I call it my little ancestor players. It’s just an iPad, but I’m able to trip the archives, so I get to sing along with them at a live show, which is cool. It's a show and tell.

And, of course, I can’t wrap up this interview without learning some Wolastoq. Can you teach me how to say “hi” and “great album”?

Hi, how are you? is “Tan Kahk olu Kil?” I would likely respond “Mec-ote pesqon,” which means “my spirit is at one with creation.” Great album, I guess we would say “Eci-wolnaqot.” No word for album though. Like in German, we have compound words, so if I wanted to say, "That sounds good," it’s “wolnaqot” or you can say “Eci-wolalkittyanaqot,” that sounds so good! Or if you wanted to be over the top, like this is the best thing ever, it’s Eci-wolalkittyanaqot, so pop an extra syllable in there anywhere.

Performance Dates:
Apr 10 - Toronto, ON - Canadian Opera Company (NOON Performance Time)
May 4 - New York, NY - Joe’s Pub
May 11 - Halifax, NS - St. Matthew’s United Church
May 25 - Ottawa, ON - First Baptist Church
Jun 9 - Toronto, ON - The Great Hall
Jun 16-17 - Winnipeg, MB - Sākihiwē Festival
Jun 27 - Vancouver, BC - Queer Arts Festival
Jun 30 - Dawson City, YT - KIAC Ballroom
Jul 4 - Montreal, QC - GESU (Montreal International Jazz Festival)