Polaris Prize winner's embrace of Maritime Indigenous roots 'so important,' says former voice coach
Dutcher built on his music studies, explored the anthropology of his ancestral music at Dalhousie University
They're singing Jeremy Dutcher's praises at Dalhousie University — in two departments — after he won the biggest prize in Canadian music Monday night: the Polaris prize for his album, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, or Our Maliseets Songs.
His $50,000 Polaris win brought his voice professor, Marcia Swanston, to tears, though she expected it was his night. His album beat out nine others for the grand prize.
"You could just feel the stars were aligned," she said from her studio where she helped him develop his operatic voice through classical training.
Dutcher is the first Atlantic Canadian to win the award in its 12-year history.
He used 100-year-old recordings of his ancestors singing in Wolastoq, his first language, and rearranged them with own his musical spin. His crossover musical style that fuses old and new has been called an act of preservation. Wolastoq is fluently spoken by fewer than 100 people.
Swanston said she could see and "feel his nerves" when her former student performed on stage at the Carlu in Toronto. It was like they were still in the studio together with her reminding him to breathe.
Then he owned it, and "hooked in" with his powerful voice and soul communicating through song, she said.
"He just puts everything into it, embracing his roots and his culture. It's so important at this time for the whole nation," she said.
She said it's a great privilege to see the person he's become.
Dutcher's hunger for knowledge drove him to pursue a fifth year of study at Dalhousie devoted to social anthropology.
Associate professor Brian Noble recalled Dutcher's honours thesis was titled "Traditional music in a contemporary moment: musical pan-Indigeneity as revitalization in the Wabenaki region."
His search for answers exposed him to the way music was collected by social scientists in the late 1800s and early 1900s and turned into artifacts.
"He quickly began to reposition and think, 'Well, that music is alive, that music is something we can rebuild from, that we need to honour and respect.'"
He said Dutcher's music is a "beautiful blending" of his commitment to renew traditional Indigenous music and make it relevant today.
Noble said the anthropology department is excited that Dutcher, an Indigenous performer, has pulled off a Polaris win because of the conversation it creates about social history and music.
"The way he has both honoured those ancestral voices of the song keepers who are recorded on those wax cylinders with the form of musical performance that he does is really quite exquisite," said Noble.
Dutcher is returning to Halifax next month. He's performing at HPX — Halifax Pop Explosion on Oct. 17.