How a Mi'kmaw song ended up on an album by world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma
American cellist collaborated with artists from around the world for his latest album
Translated into multiple languages, played with the accompaniment of an array of instruments and performed for audiences around the world — the Mi'kmaw Honor Song has already cemented its place in the history books.
But one new recording is likely to introduce the song to its widest audience yet.
The second track on Notes for the Future, the new album from world-renowned American cellist Yo-Yo Ma, begins with the sound of Ma's trademark instrument. After several long, mellow notes, a voice comes in with the distinct chants that make up the chorus of Honor Song.
It started with a phone call nearly three years ago. Ma was on a worldwide tour performing Johann Sebastian Bach's cello suites. He invited local musicians on stage for guest performances on many of the stops. For his only Canadian concert, in Montreal, he invited Jeremy Dutcher, a young operatic tenor who had just won the Polaris Music Prize for his debut album.
"I had photoshoots and some interviews booked that weekend," Dutcher recalled in a recent interview, "and I just had to say, 'Well, sorry, we're going to have to postpone a couple of those because this is a collaboration of a lifetime.'"
The two performed the Mi'kmaw Honor Song together for the first time on stage at the Maison Symphonique concert hall, but it wouldn't be the last time. When Ma's tour was over, he selected eight of his tour guests to record their collaborations for his next album, which was released in September.
On the album, the track with Dutcher is titled simply Honor Song, and it includes a verse in Mi'kmaq and a verse in Wolastoqey, the language of the Wolastoqiyik or Maliseet.
"I came to know that song through my elders, singing it in my language," said Dutcher, who is originally from the Wolastoqiyik community of Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick.
He eventually learned about the song's origins in the Mi'kmaw language, and met its composer, George Paul.
When it came time to record with Ma, Dutcher said he wanted to start with the Mi'kmaw version as a sign of respect to the original and its composer.
"There's a spirit that travels with that song," Paul said in an interview from his home in Miramichi, N.B. "And I know that because people tell me themselves, it's like testimonies, they come to me and tell me, 'That song saved my life.'"
Now a respected elder among the Mi'kmaq, the idea for the song first came to Paul as a young man on a spiritual fast in the 1970s. It has since become something of an anthem for the Mi'kmaq and other Indigenous people, performed with the accompaniment of drums at all manner of different gatherings — from celebratory powwows to mournful marches for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
"It's a very powerful message, really. Honour who we are as a human family, help one another. Help one another in a manner that the creator has given us here on Mother Earth. There is only one."
Paul said he's pleased with the impact his song has made over the decades, and with the opportunities he's had to share it with different audiences. He's recorded the song's chants with Symphony Nova Scotia, and a book about the song is part of Nova Scotia's treaty education curriculum.
The honour song has taken on a life of its own since Paul released it into the world, he said. In the case of Dutcher and Ma's version, Paul said he signed a copyright agreement with Dutcher, allowing him to adapt and record it.
Dutcher came to prominence as a musician with his 2018 album, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, on which he layers his own voice, singing in Wolastoqey, with archival recordings of early 20th century Wolastoqiyik singers. He's described the work as a form of advocacy for the revitalization of Indigenous languages.
"I hope to inspire our young people to know the beauty of who they are. And I think that's one way in which representation can stoke the flames of a fire. We're in a moment right now where our people are waking up to our own beauty and to what we offer and to our knowledge and our languages."
Now, having joined forces with Ma, Dutcher said he sees an opportunity to also share Indigenous knowledge and languages more broadly, and introduce more listeners to the message Paul first articulated all those years ago.
As for Paul, he hadn't heard of Ma before the cellist recorded with Dutcher. Paul has since done his research and said he's eager to see what the future holds for the honour song.
"Yo-Yo Ma, I mean, that takes it to another level."