Nova Scotia

Polaris Prize winner's embrace of Maritime Indigenous roots 'so important,' says former voice coach

Two very different departments at Dalhousie University, music and anthropology, are excited about Jeremy Dutcher's Polaris win for the best Canadian album of the year. Both departments claim the Indigenous performer trained in opera and anthropology as one of their own.

Dutcher built on his music studies, explored the anthropology of his ancestral music at Dalhousie University

Singer and composer Jeremy Dutcher said hearing the voices of ancestors in archived wax cylinder recordings was "profoundly transformational." (Jon Castell/CBC)

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.

Dutcher, a member of the Wolastoqiyik Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick, graduated from the Halifax university in 2013 with an honours bachelor degree in music and social anthropology.

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.

Jeremy Dutcher on his 2013 convocation with Marcia Swanston, one of his voice professors. He called her a "mentor" in his Facebook post. (Facebook)

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.

Dalhousie professor Brian Noble says Dutcher's win has started a discussion around social history and music. (Submitted by Brian Noble)

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.

About the Author

Elizabeth Chiu is a reporter in Nova Scotia and hosts Atlantic Tonight on Saturdays at 7, 7:30 in Newfoundland. If you have a story idea for her, contact her at elizabeth.chiu@cbc.ca.