Published Apr 06, 2018They say you have your whole lifetime to make your debut album, but Toronto-based composer and classically trained operatic tenor Jeremy Dutcher draws from well beyond his 27 years on Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa (Our Maliseet Songs), literally duetting with ancestral voices from his Wolastoq community in New Brunswick (he's from the Tobique First Nation, one of several Wolastoq communities) on songs that combine genres to create what he calls a constellation of influences: opera collides with electronic, pop, rock and jazz, all interwoven with traditional Wolastoq songs and melodies, many of which haven't been heard by the community — or anyone — for over a hundred years.
Dutcher was set on this path of learning and giving new life to traditional Wolastoq songs five years ago by his elder, Maggie Paul, who had gone to the archives at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, QC in the 1980s and brought out songs to share with the community. Because of her work, Dutcher was familiar with the song "Pomok naka Poktoinskwes (Fisher and the Water Spirit)," the only song here that he was familiar with prior to working on the album.
Paul told Dutcher that he should go to the archives too, and he did, listening to and transcribing, by ear, Wolastoq songs that had been recorded by an anthropologist in the early 1900s and preserved on wax cylinders during a time when the Canadian government was actively suppressing expressions of Indigenous culture and the Wolastoq language was thought to be dying.
The traditional songs Dutcher revives on Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa are often functional — associated with specific ceremonies or activities like trading, canoeing, love, marriage and the institution of a new chief. There are many songs about water (as there are many Wolastoqey words for water) because water was — and is — very important to Wolastoq people. (Wolastoq means "beautiful river," and is the Maliseet name for the St. John River.)
What makes the album so uniquely compelling is Dutcher's use of the archival recordings in his contemporary versions of the songs. On opener "Mehcinut (Death Chant)," Dutcher begins with piano and his voice; it is only later in the song that the archival recording of the same song comes in, an old voice joining his young one in song, as if the new version of the song is beckoning the older one back into existence and then lifting it up even higher with Dutcher's tenor.
That idea is reiterated when Dutcher includes a recording of Paul from his interview with her five years ago in the intro and outro to the third track, "Eqpahak (Savage Island)." Paul says, "the ancestors are so happy that people are singing the songs again, because they thought they'd never hear them again." The ancestors are still present on Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, and they are listening.
That this haunting moment is sandwiched between "Essuwonike (Trading Song)," which reaches rock opera heights, and "Ultestakon (Shaker Lullaby)," which begins with pizzicato violin that recalls Owen Pallett, is representative of Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa as a whole — it's clear that Dutcher has thrown all of himself, or at least a lot of different parts of himself, into this project.
Like a lot of opera, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa is not translated. But if you spend time with the songs, they start to evoke their meaning musically. Percussive "'kotuwossomikhal (Thirsty)" for example, is urgent and uncomfortable and noisy with static; "Oqiton (Canoe Song)" has stirring strings, like pools of water; and on "Nipuwoltin (Wedding Song)," the violin is a cheerful East coast fiddle. The album reaches its dramatic climax at "Pomok naka Poktoinskwes," which tells the story of the fisher and the water spirit, with Teiya Kasahara guesting on soprano as the water spirit. Dutcher closes with "Koselwintuwakon," a gentle love song that sounds like early choral music, with Dutcher harmonizing with himself beautifully.
Heartbreakingly, the album points to what is lost — track six, "Sakomawit (Chief's Installation)" begins with an archivist commenting in French and English that song number 14 in the archives is brisé, i.e. broken, before moving on to 15. Because of the fragile nature of wax cylinders, many of the songs that were collected 110 years ago were lost due to degradation.
But on Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, Dutcher focuses mainly on what is still relevant today; the songs that have been rediscovered, recovered and revived here are beautiful, celebratory and very much alive. (Independent)