Jeremy Dutcher’s low voice is filled with reverence as he quotes Buffy Sainte-Marie: “If what you want is not on the menu, go into the kitchen, cook it up, and show them how good it tastes.” Dutcher’s debut album, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, certainly wasn’t on the menu: an avant-garde neo-opera that reinterprets century-old wax cylinder recordings of traditional songs by his people, the Wolastoqiyik of the Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick, sung in their language of Wolastoqey.
The project announced the 28 year old as one of Canada’s most important new musicians, and captures the spirit of Sainte-Marie’s words. “Just sharing ourselves in a beautiful way is an inherently political act,” he says of indigenous artists like him and Sainte-Marie. “But I’ve also come to know most people have a sense of justice and want to know what it’s like to be the other.”
We’re speaking in a coffee shop in Toronto on a rainy Sunday afternoon, one of the precious few days Dutcher has had to spend at home since winning the 2018 Polaris prize, an annual C$50,000 award for excellence in Canadian music akin to the UK’s Mercury prize, and given to Arcade Fire, Kaytranada and Feist in past years.
The acclaim for his classical-jazz-electronic-opera, released in Britain this month, has sent Dutcher on performances across North America and to workshops with indigenous youth. “I believe my work is to engage the young people and get them excited about the wealth of knowledge that sits within our language and our songs,” Dutcher says, his kind eyes shimmering with excitement. “The days of internalised colonialism are done.”
Dutcher emphasises that Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa comes at “a very critical moment” for the language of Wolastoqey. The most recent statistics place the number of fluent speakers at around 100, but Dutcher cautions that the figure is not up to date – he is wary of suggesting that what he describes as a “flourishing” culture is near-extinct. He remembers being “a little brown queerdo” in a household that was filled with the sounds of Wolastoqey, which his mother and grandmother spoke, and of the piano, which Dutcher taught himself to play aged 16. The language was a part of his life, but its former ubiquity in Wolastoqiyik society had been destroyed by the white settlers who arrived a mere 150 years ago.
Much of the traditional music that Dutcher’s album repurposes was new to him. He was studying operatic performance at Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia, when his mentor Maggie Paul, a singer and Passamaquoddy elder, told him of the music stored on wax cylinder recordings in the Canadian Museum of History, collected by an anthropologist named William H Mechling. Dutcher heard many Wolastoqiyik songs for the first time – all but one of the songs on the archived recordings had disappeared from his community’s collective memory.
Dutcher worked on Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa for five years. His classical music training enabled him to translate the melodies of the traditional songs into previously Eurocentric opera; but the album also experiments beyond opera. Mehcinut has the anthemic punch of early Sigur Rós; Qonute hinges on jazzy electric piano to create smouldering trip-hop; and Koselwintuwakon, with its droning organ and layered vocals, has a hymnal feel. Weaved throughout are samples of the original recordings, adding a profound gravity to Dutcher’s sonorous tenor, the album’s lodestar: his range stretches from celebratory bellows to gossamer whispers.
Dutcher felt he had to transform the original songs in order to respect their “embodied nature”; they were only performed during the specific activities their lyrics depict. “We only sing the canoe song [Oqiton] when we’re going down the river on a canoe. Or we only sing the berry-picking song when we’re actually in the field.”
Dutcher glides through genres like one of his main influences, Nina Simone. He points out that Simone would call herself a “black classical musician” rather than a jazz artist. The nebulous area between genres is not just where Dutcher creates his music, but where much of the art of his people thrives. “The middle space, this is actually where a lot of truth lies,” Dutcher says, tracing a painted fingernail across the lacquered wooden surface of the cafe table. “So rarely are our artistic statements situated in one time frame. They’re often speaking to all moments.”
As he accepted his Polaris prize, Dutcher said – first in Wolastoqey, then in English: “All of my people, this is for you!” He went on to say that Canada is experiencing “an indigenous renaissance”, then he put a question to the gala’s mostly white crowd: “Are you ready to hear the truth that needs to be told?” I ask Dutcher if he thinks Canada is ready. That is “to be determined”, he says with a sigh. He has similar trepidation about his forthcoming European tour, explaining how unnerving it can be to enter spaces where “they’re expecting somebody in a headdress and buckskin”.
Nevertheless, Dutcher says part of his role is to “break down people’s misunderstandings”. He wants to show everyone – from the reservation to the opera house, and even the white hobbyists who dress up as “Indians” in historical re-enactments – that the only things gone from this world for ever are the old limitations placed on indigenous peoples. As he concludes: “I’m not the Indian you wanted, but I am the Indian you need.”