Published May 09, 2018Jeremy Dutcher is a composer, anthropological researcher, pianist, activist, classically trained operatic tenor and time traveller. If that last part sounds like a stretch, listen to his groundbreaking debut album, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa (Our Maliseet Songs). On it, he duets with ancestral voices from his Wolastoq community in New Brunswick in order to reimagine and revive old songs for his community: past, present and future generations.
"I believe we are able to time travel through music," Dutcher tells Exclaim! over lunch at a cafe in Toronto's Cabbagetown neighbourhood. "I know it sounds a little kooky."
Dutcher began researching what would become Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa five years ago at the suggestion of his elder, song carrier Maggie Paul, who told him to visit the archives at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, QC, and listen to the Wolastoq songs there. And he did. Recorded between 1907 and 1914, and preserved on wax cylinders, Dutcher says that of the over 100 songs recorded, more than 20 percent had deteriorated to the point of being indecipherable, and most of the songs had been forgotten by his community, due to lack of access to the materials.
"[Under the Indian Act] there wasn't a lot of space for people's practice of culture," Dutcher says. "My mom's mother grew up in a generation when it was illegal to practice Indigenous culture. As Maggie says, 'Our songs weren't safe, so they had to go away for a while.'"
In his own way, Dutcher is carrying on the tradition of song carriers like Paul in bringing the songs back. But he didn't re-record the songs exactly as he was hearing them. "I wanted to inject who I was into it, and I was affirmed by reading [anthropologist William Mechling's] field notes; each singer would take the melody, sing it a couple times, then they would explore and go on tangents, change the rhythm."
Dutcher originally wrote Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa as chamber pieces, for piano, strings and voice — no electronics. "At a certain point I thought, 'Who is this project for?' I want these songs to live with the young people." He teamed up with Montreal's Devon Bate, who did electronics, and drummer Brandon Valdivia (Lido Pimienta) as well as soprano Teiya Kasahara and string players to create the constellation of sounds on Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, which also includes excerpts from the archives. It falls, Dutcher says, somewhere between A Tribe Called Red and Montreal piano composer Jean-Michel Blais, while being incredibly regionally specific.
"One of the shows I did at home, an old woman came up to me and said that her grandmother used to sing 'Ultestakon (Shaker Lullaby)' to her when she was a kid. 'You brought her into the space with that song,' she said. 'Thank you for doing that.'
"This isn't going to be the way I carry my artistic practice throughout my life, I don't think, but for this album, it was very much a conversation between me and my community."