Culture  Of language and song

A young artist combines the traditional and the personal

On Saturday, September 16, Montreal’s Rialto Theatre hosted a moving performance by an emerging Wolastoqey artist. Jeremy Dutcher’s work brings to life traditional Maliseet songs, incorporating his own flavour and talents into a final product that is hard to label but undeniably captivating and emotional.

Dutcher is one of only 500 or so remaining speakers of the Wolastoqey (or Maliseet) language, and his work is heavily directed towards the revitalization of both the music and the language of his people. The Wolastoqiyik (“people of the beautiful river”) First Nation inhabit territory primarily in New Brunswick, but also in parts of Maine and Quebec, and has at its heart the Wolastoq River. By performing almost exclusively Wolastoqey songs, Dutcher hopes to inspire others to keep these alive. “When you lose a language,” he tells the audience, “you don’t just lose the language. You lose a whole way of looking at the world.”

The show took place on the second floor of the historic Montreal theatre, in a long, dark hall with the dull thump of other performances in the lively building reverberating through the floor. Dutcherís chatty banter with the audience, as they left the bar and came to sit on the wooden floor in front of the stage, was indicative of the tone of the evening warm, casual, and enchanting.

Dutcher drew the audience in from the moment he set hands on the creaky grand piano (which he patted affectionately halfway through his performance: “it needs love”) until the last echo of his operatic voice faded away.

Most of the songs performed were part of Dutcher’s first album, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, which is recorded and will be released soon. His project is ambitious. Though not easily accessible to the community due to their poor quality, there exist a number of recordings on phonograph cylinders (the earliest commercial form of recordings) of Wolastoqey songs recorded by an ethnographer in the early 1900s. Through a tedious and time-consuming process described on his website, Dutcher has been transcribing these songs and adapting them for his own performance. The combination of the traditional songs played, Dutcher’s talent on the piano (on which the influence of classical and jazz music are felt, while remaining completely unique), and the incredible operatic power of his voice makes listening to his work an emotional experience.

Throughout his performance, Dutcher played the recordings that he has been transcribing, the original ones from the early 1900s, either before or simultaneous with his own interpretations. Listening to the scratchy but beautiful wax recordings fading into Dutcherís powerful voice was profoundly moving.

Between songs, Dutcher talked of the history of his people and of their music, and shared his own experiences working on this project. All but two of the songs performed were in the Maliseet language, with Dutcher providing a translation of the title and of the broad meaning of each. He noted, for example, the tumultuous nature of the Trade Song (Esuwonike), or how many of the Wolastoqey songs reflect an intimate tie with the water (Song for the Canoe – Lintuwakon ciw oqiton, Fisher and the Waterspirit – Pomok naka Poktoinskwes).

After performing the Song for the Shaker, (Lintuwakon ciw ultestakon,) a lullaby, Dutcher told a particularly moving story about the importance of his project. Both the Wolastoqey language and songs are becoming increasingly hard to come by. Now based in Toronto, Dutcher travelled home to perform the pieces he had been working on for his people. After his performance, an older woman came to speak to him. She told him that, as a child, her grandmother had sung her the Lintuwakon ciw ultestakon, and that she had not heard it since. And she thanked him. Dutcher’s goal is to do just this, and he explains: “I see this project as a way not just to reclaim these songs as Maliseet, but also to give them back to my people.”