Jeremy Dutcher on recontextualizing his Indigenous past through music and language
Jeremy Dutcher is a Polaris Music Prize-winning and Juno Award-winning composer, pianist and classically trained tenor. He is originally from the Wolastoq community in New Brunswick.
His debut 2018 album, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, reconstructs and reimagines wax cylinder recordings collected by anthropologist William H. Mechling and performed by members of the Indigenous community in the early 1900s — a time when the Canadian government had restricted Dutcher's ancestors from passing on their traditions.
Dutcher spoke with Shelagh Rogers about his approach to music, identity and the process of 'deep listening.'
"I grew up in between worlds. My mother's community is Tobique First Nation in the northwestern part of New Brunswick. But my parents wanted to have us schooled in Fredericton. We'd do our school time there and then spend a lot of time going back and forth.
"I was very well supported by my immediate family and was well protected. I'm the youngest of four boys. I have three older brothers. It was not always easy living in this place and inhabiting the body I happened to inhabit. But you find solace in art and music."
History in wax cylinders
"The collection of recordings was housed in the basement of the Canadian Museum of History. It wasn't a glamorous room but it's a spectacular building. This anthropologist Mechling goes into our community, lives among my people for about seven years and collects our traditional songs and stories. He shows up to the community with this big gramophone, puts it in front of the people and says, 'Sing your songs.' These songs were collected at a time where it wasn't safe to be who we were. But the songs were collected."
"When I heard those archives for the first time I didn't try to sing them, I just sat with them for a very long time and tried to understand what they were telling me. I wanted to be engaged in a process of deep listening first.... I knew as soon as I heard these recordings that they called for a response.
"I heard so much under them. They are melodies. But for me, there was a symphony under it. They begged for a response, to be coloured in a little bit and contextualized. But I was never scared to put myself into them as well. We need to acknowledge that culture is not static and it breathes and it lives in the songs."
Jeremy Dutcher performs Pomok Naka Poktoinskwes for CBC Music's First Play Live
Jeremy Dutcher's comments have been edited for length and clarity.