On the striking cover of his new album—a startling and often haunting mix of operatic singing and ancient Indigenous songs—tenor Jeremy Dutcher is sitting in front of an old wax-cylinder phonograph. The image is based on an archival 1916 photo, in which Blackfoot chief Ninna-Stako sits, speaking into the trumpetlike recorder, with ethnographer Frances Densmore. But on Dutcher’s album cover, the ethnographer’s stool is empty. Flip over to the back cover, and Dutcher now takes his place on the stool, and the chair by the phonograph is vacant.
Dutcher, in this artwork and in his music, is playing with the traditional role of white academic and Indigenous subject. For the painstaking five-year project of research and composition that’s gone into his new album, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa (Maliseet Songs), he’s played both musical anthropologist and subject.
“While I was studying music at school, I wanted to switch to anthropology,” the artist, who trained at Halifax’s Dalhousie University (where he ended up doing a combined bachelor in the two subjects), tells the Straight. “And my mother said, ‘Don’t you know we’ve been studied to death?!’
“I created this project in reaction to the classical western world,” he adds. “There was so much I saw that didn’t reflect how I wanted to make music. And for me, so much of this project has been about crafting—somewhere between bridging and turning the forms in on each other.”
A member of the Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick, Dutcher was raised at home with a mother who still spoke the Wolastoq language that only about 100 people do today. Seeing his interest in the language, as well as in music, the elder Maggie Paul encouraged him to someday go to the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau to listen to the 1907 wax-cylinder recordings of his people’s songs. Many of those traditional melodies had been lost in the wake of the Indian Act, which banned cultural traditions.
When Dutcher finally received a grant to delve into the scratchy recordings, his first listen was “a life-changing moment for sure”.
After countless more hours of listening, Dutcher then turned to his piano to try to decide what he wanted to do with the songs. “I could do a traditional rerecord in a traditional way, with just a hand drum and a vocal line,” he says. But then he read anthropology journals that said his people often interpreted the music in their own way. “I thought, ‘I want to take it somewhere or respond to it; I think of this project with ancestral voices in a conversation,’ ” he says, adding he found his formal training and the old songs coming together naturally: “Classical opera and traditional music are coming from a similar space—a spiritual place.”
As the audience for his concert at the Queer Arts Festival will hear, the resulting series of songs take on their own, luminous identity, fusing both traditions while becoming something all their own. Amid orchestral touches and Dutcher’s own resonant tenor, the crackly voice of one of his ancestors on the wax recordings will sometimes emerge.
Taking his music through a deeply personal journey to the stage has been surreal, he admits: “It’s been an often isolating, lonely process, with research done in basements and archives, so it’s been a change to go out and share that in a public way—a sharing of that solitude.” He stresses that the concert here will be an intimate affair, Dutcher sitting at his piano, telling the stories behind Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa (Maliseet Songs) and singing, as he puts it, “in duet” with the old recordings.
He sees his work as an important step in preserving his people’s music and mother tongue, but also in making it alive and relevant for a new generation.
In fact, though it’s not addressed directly with this musical project, that cultural activism reflects all the work Dutcher does as part of the two-spirit movement.
“I didn’t grow up with a lot of teaching around that—because of the huge influence of the church and the missionaries, which pushed queer identity to the margins,” says Dutcher, who hopes he can be one of many role models to LGBTQ Indigenous youths. “I didn’t have a lot of queer elders I could look up to in the community.”
With his songs and his activism, Dutcher is at the forefront, he hopes, of change—change he sees all around him on the national stage, and even within his own family.
“When I think about it, it’s an entire 180,” he says. “My mother came to one of my shows very early in this process. And people stood up and gave a standing ovation. I could tell she was affected, because she didn’t stand. And after she said, ‘In my lifetime I never thought it was possible to see Indigenous and non-Indigenous people standing up and applauding our music.’
“So I think even within that generation how much has changed, and not just for people from our nation, but for nations coast to coast.”
The Queer Arts Festival presents Jeremy Dutcher at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre on June 27.