Listening Post 177. In the popular imagination, time travel typically involves a fanciful machine. In real life, Jeremy Dutcher visited the past using the wax cylinders of an Edison-era phonograph and digital technology that preserved recordings made in 1907. An opera singer and composer—and faithful son of the Wolastoq First Nation of New Brunswick—Dutcher dug into the archives of the Canadian Museum of History for songs in the Wolastoq language (also called Maliseet), which has dwindled to about 100 speakers. What he found was the soundtrack of a civilization—songs of welcome and weddings, love and lullaby, leadership and trade, spirit and death. Where other Indigenous artists have channeled ancestral music through rock, folk or hip-hop, Dutcher’s métier is classical, his rearrangements flowing from a dialogue between his tradition and his training. Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa (Our Maliseet Songs), his first album, is a stunning achievement, no less of music than of research. The opening track, Mehcinut (Death Chant), is a life celebration that seems as much a declaration to the ancients—that their culture survives—as to new generations (video 1). The Wolastoqiyik (Wolastoq people) live along the Saint John River and its tributaries, and Pomok naka Poktoinskwes (Fisher and Water Spirit) reflects the centrality of water in their lore (video 2). The artist’s elegant tenor is in harmony with history and with itself in Koselwintuwakon (Love Song, video 3). And Sakomawit (Chief’s Installation) offers good counsel for any nation: “When you lead, think of all of us; especially the ones yet born” (video 4). Dutcher’s project reinforces efforts to preserve his ancestral language and resonates beyond his community. He’s working on a curriculum for introducing Wolastoq into New Brunswick schools and his album also won the 2018 Polaris Prize, Canada’s album of the year award. A son’s journey to the past is shaping the tenor of the future. (Killbeat Music)
Note: Jeremy Dutcher describes his path from archive to album and the pairing of Wolastoq tradition with his classical training (video 5).
Wolastoq means “beautiful river.” In addition to giving its name to the Wolastoqiyik (Wolastoq people), it is the Indigenous name of the Saint John River, which flows mostly through New Brunswick and also forms part of the U.S.-Canadian border.
From the album notes:
The archival recordings for this song have the clearest quality of the over one hundred recordings collected. You are able to hear a speech by Jim Paul about death and what comes after, which ends the piece. The lyrics, “Ya-ni-gwe-do”, are likely vocables, but could also be an older form of language no longer spoken.
Pomok naka Poktoinskwes/Fisher and Water Spirit
This was the only archival recording that I recognized from my childhood. It was recovered in the 1980s by song carrier Maggie Paul and has been sung in Maliseet communities ever since.
“In the springtime when you get lonely, all you need to do is look up the river. I’ll be coming down in my canoe. Look up the river.”
This melody is sung when a new chief is welcomed into one of our communities. The lyrics speak of the responsibility of our leaders to be accountable to our people:
Nikaniyayon, ktopitahaminen ‘ciw weckuwapasihtit. Nit leyic.—”When you lead, think of all of us; especially the ones yet born. May that be the truth.”
Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa: About the Album