Review: Jeremy Dutcher offers a powerful performance of the songs of his people

Jeremy Dutcher's on a mission to preserve the Maliseet language through music. Photo: John Paille

Jeremy Dutcher brought his powerful message to the NAC’s Babs Asper Theatre on Wednesday night.

It’s a message inherent in the songs he found in the Museum of History — that the words of his people, the Wolastoqiyik of the Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick are still here and still sounding.

That they are still here, however, is a tenuous thing. There are only about 500 speakers of this language left.

Dutcher has taken those songs, some recorded on wax cylinders by ethnographers near the turn of the 20th century, and transformed them into music that is at once contemporary and timeless.

The work was recorded on an album called Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa and released  in 2018. It has become a phenomenon, perhaps because it is phenomenal, unique and meaningful music. The album won the Polaris Prize in 2018 and Dutcher has been touring the music. He arrived in Ottawa this week to take part in the Moshkamo festival of Indigenous performing arts.

He is an unusual winner of the Polaris prize. He is a classically trained tenor who at one point was learning German and on a track to singing Mozart, Verdi and Wagner, when he was inspired by the elder Maggie Paul.

She said to him that if you bring back the songs, you bring back the dances and that brings everything back.

It is a message that reinforces what the Queen’s University professor Dylan Robinson said to me recently in an interview: “Our songs are more than songs. For thousands of years, songs have acted as our law … This is how we have transferred knowledge through the centuries. Songs aren’t just pretty things we listen to.”

The songs are at the centre of the culture.

Wednesday evening, Dutcher proved that. He walked on stage wearing a black leather jacket and a blue robe along with cellist Blanche Israel and drummer Brandon Valdiva.

His opening song was preceded by the voice of a song-keeper recorded more than a century ago. It was an eerie echo of a time past.

The use of these old recordings throughout the evening and other moments of humour, storytelling, commentary and ritual makes Dutcher’s performance so much more than a concert. It’s a ceremony. It takes western sounding melody and adapts that to a language that few in the room would understand but could still feel quite deeply.

One hesitates to use the word profound too often but this performance was all of that.

The songs connect us, for example, to the central place of water in all our lives through his version of a canoe song that flows from the landscape of the St. John River valley where the Tobique First Nation is. Dutcher does take these old songs and make them his own.

There is powerful politics at work here too, particularly in the performance of the song Cherokee Louise by Joni Mitchell about the sexual abuse of a young Indigenous girl. That would be strong enough but then at the end, Blanche Israel’s cello moved powefully into the civil rights anthem We Shall Overcome.

But it wasn’t all protest. Dutcher made a point of speaking about an audience of settlers and Indigenous people who had come together to enjoy his music and listen to the voices of his elders. That to him — and me — is a hopeful message.

His final song before an encore was a love song that he literally rescued from the shards of the past. The song was part of the wax cylinder collection at the Museum of History but some cylinders were broken and lost.

Then, in the notes of the ethnographer who collected the music, he found some sheet music which provided him a melody. With the audience, this time humming together, that song lived on Wednesday night.

The encore was a Mi’kmaw honour song that has been given to all the East Coast Indigenous peoples to share in.

Ta Ho.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.