After 30-year quest, music anthropologist puts Deline songs on paper

A woman’s three-decade quest to document traditional songs from the Dene community of Deline, N.W.T., is coming to fruition in a new book.

'I want the elders who told me these stories to be heard,' says Nicole Beaudry

Michael Neyelle, Nicole Beaudry and Lucy Jackson at a camp between Deline and Tulita. Beaudry, a music anthropologist, met with elders to record and score traditional songs over nearly a dozen trips to Deline. She is compiling the results of her nearly 30 years of work in a book she says is less for academic purposes and more for the people of Deline. (Jean Polfus)

A woman's three-decade quest to document traditional songs from the Dene community of Deline, N.W.T., is coming to fruition in a new book.

It's "not for academic purposes at all," says music anthropologist Nicole Beaudry.

"Really, the focus is for Deline people."

Beaudry studied the musical and vocal traditions of the Dene who live on Great Bear Lake. The book will document everything from prayer songs, ets'ulah (a.k.a Dene love songs) to the oldest songs, ı́lıwá (songs before the drum), now called tea dance songs, only a few of which are sung today.

The "hefty manuscript" is the culmination of Beaudry's research over a span of nearly 30 years and more than 100 hours of cassette and later digital recordings.

She said during her visits, community members always asked "'What exactly are you doing with this material? How will that help us?"'

"I want the elders who told me these stories (and songs) to be heard," she said.

Berger Inquiry drew her to Mackenzie Valley

Beaudry's passion for studying and documenting the vocal and drumming practices of Indigenous people started with Inuit in the Eastern Arctic and Yupik people in Southwest Alaska. In the mid-1970s, her attention turned to the Northwest Territories, where a landmark inquiry into the proposed Mackenzie Valley Pipeline was taking place. Indigenous peoples' fight for land rights was front and centre.

Chief Justice Thomas Berger of the Supreme Court of British Columbia listens to testimony in Yellowknife in 1974. Berger headed a federal inquiry into development of a natural gas pipeline through the Mackenzie Valley. It was through the inquiry that Nicole Beaudry became intrigued by Dene musical traditions. (Canadian Press)

"We knew nothing about, or very little" about that part of Canada, she said, and even less about Dene musical traditions.

"Nobody had worked at all on these singing traditions of the Sahtu Dene. I would try to understand the entirety of it."

That meant understanding the culture. Over nearly a dozen trips to Deline, Beaudry met with elders, or "knowledge keepers," as she described them. Those visits always started and ended with storytelling about the old days, traditional games and drumming.

Beaudry relied on local interpreters such as Michael Neyelle to help decode the words, meaning, and context. Some of the songs were so old, even Neyelle had trouble.

"I had to ask: 'what did you mean by that?'" said Neyelle.

But, he added, "When you hear them actually saying words from our language you can understand it. It just inspires. It gives you inspiration. they are giving us resources we need to help save our culture and traditions."

The songs include the one sung on elder Louie Taniton's wedding day. The Deline elder sang it again for Beaudry in 1989, keeping time by tapping his foot.

Louie Taniton sings a wedding song 0:41

Other songs recall nostalgia of the old days and feelings of happiness on the land. In 1992, elder Adeline Vital shared her memories of gathering wood in the spring. Chirping birds and fresh breezes inspired this ets'ulah, or love song.

Adeline Vital sings an ets'ulah 1:27

Songs rich in meaning

Nicole Beaudry says Four Singers was the first prayer song passed on by prophet Andre Dolphus from Deline. The only word other than syllables is 'Yak'egot'ine' which means 'people from up there,' referring to the angels who relayed the messages and songs for people to pray with. (submitted by Nicole Beaudry)

Beaudry scored each of the 100 songs on paper, detailing the notes and melody. She said it was a "delicate" feat, as many musical symbols aren't relevant to the Dene way of singing.

"You try and use as little as possible symbols that would become meaningless so you try and get at the core of the song."

Some songs have just a few words — rich in meaning — that are repeated in short melodic patterns.

"The words have different meanings depending on the context in which it's sung."

Drum dance songs often refer to "up there," the realm of the creator, songs first heard by the prophets in the early 1900s, said Beaudry.

"Dene values, moral values — it's all coined within one word or one expression. So it's really hard to discuss song text."

But what Beaudry can say definitively is "The land is central to everything. If you don't understand this strong bond, you can't understand the rest."

Preserving culture

Deline Chief Leonard Kenny says he was surprised and "touched" to see Deline's musical history on paper.

"It was written down as musical notes and I didn't really understand it but when I said 'sing it to me,' she did. She sang it the same way as the elders sang it," said Kenny.

"I had never seen that before."

Kenny says documenting this history is key for his community to preserve its culture, language and succeed in self-governance, which comes into effect in September. Eventually he'd like to see the book used in schools.

"The songs will give guidance to us as leaders," said Kenny.

"We also lost a lot of [songs]. When an elder dies he brings a lot of that information with him. We need to do more recordings."

The book is about a year away from publication.