Jeremy Dutcher, The Newest Light In Canada's Indigenous Renaissance Dutcher spent five years researching, writing and recording his brilliant and ambitious debut album, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa -- now, it has earned one of Canada's most prestigious prizes.

Jeremy Dutcher, The Newest Light In Canada's Indigenous Renaissance

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This year, Canada's top music award, the Polaris Prize, went to 27-year-old Jeremy Dutcher for his debut album. It combines his operatic tenor with 110-year-old recordings of songs in the language of his indigenous people. Dutcher hopes the Polaris win will help bring attention to the issues of culture and identity his people face. Catalina Maria Johnson reports.

CATALINA MARIA JOHNSON, BYLINE: Jeremy Dutcher is a Wolastoqiyik member of the Tobique First Nation, and his album is called "Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa," the songs of the people of the beautiful river.


JEREMY DUTCHER: (Singing in Wolastoqiyik).

JOHNSON: Dutcher studied music and anthropology at Dalhousie University. He also apprenticed with a song carrier and elder who told him about the century-old songs housed at the Canadian Museum of History.

DUTCHER: And so I made my way to Ottawa and went down into the basement archives there and threw on some headphones and started a journey.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing in Wolastoqiyik).

DUTCHER: (Singing in Wolastoqiyik).

To get to hear these voices and to not just hear the songs but also to, you know, hear the background noise and to hear them laughing and telling jokes and - it was a real snapshot of life at that time. I heard what they heard, you know? There was a sense of entering into that space through these voices. That was something that changed my life.

JOHNSON: Dutcher decided he had a responsibility to share these recordings, so he collaborated with his mentor Passamaquoddy elder Maggie Paul to recover the melodies and lyrics from between the scratches.

MAGGIE PAUL: It took many, many months in order to get whatever we could out of that scratchy cylinders or whatever you call it.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing in Wolastoqiyik).

DUTCHER: (Singing in Wolastoqiyik).

JOHNSON: Jeremy Dutcher was trying to learn the songs, and one day while singing along, he heard a dialogue between his voice and those of the elders and began to compose.

DUTCHER: I was fresh out of my classical music degree, and, you know, I could have created these obscure, atonal string pieces or something. But for me, it was about making accessible music that people could engage with.


DUTCHER: (Singing in Wolastoqiyik).

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #3: (Singing in Wolastoqiyik).

DUTCHER: It was about crafting a narrative that ran through these songs and to try to relay the beauty that's within this archive to the people that are listening to this record. And so it was this confluence of taking the training that I had in sort of Euro-Western classical tradition and also the traditional indigenous elements that are so much a part of the source material and trying to put them in conversation with each other.

JOHNSON: It's a conversation that's in danger of being silenced.

DUTCHER: Because even just within one generation, we went from my mother growing up in the community, and everyone spoke the language. It was the language of every day. And now we're at a point where there's less than a hundred fluent speakers left.

JOHNSON: As important as preserving the language is, Maggie Paul says you don't have to know it to feel the music's power.

PAUL: We're all getting connected all in that one space. Whatever language the music puts out, we feel it. We don't have to understand it. We feel it in our heart. We feel it in our spirit. And the vibrations that come from it - it's really awesome.


DUTCHER: (Singing in Wolastoqiyik).

JOHNSON: In addition to sharing these songs with audiences, Dutcher wants to share something about himself. He identifies as queer or two-spirit.

DUTCHER: I got to chat with an elder who is two-spirit and was raised in the two-spirit way. And she told me that her grandmother told her a story when she was growing up. And she said long ago, long ago, if people were traveling on the road and they came to a community, they would ask, do you have a two-spirit person here? And if they said no, that person would keep traveling because these people were spiritual leaders. Because they had that duality of perspective, they could see both ways at once. And so for me, it's just about being a light and showing the way for young, indigenous two-spirit people that never see that representation.

JOHNSON: Jeremy Dutcher points out that in the Wolastoqiyik language that he is trying to preserve, there is no gender, and he hopes his ancestors appreciate the journey he's undertaken. For NPR News, I'm Catalina Maria Johnson.


DUTCHER: (Singing in Wolastoqiyik).

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