Singing the Ancestors: Indigenous Anthropology Graduate Wins Polaris Music Prize
By Martha Radice, Brian Noble, and Liesl Gambold, Dalhousie University
Dalhousie University’s anthropologists were bursting with pride in September when they learned that one of their Honours alumni, operatic tenor and musician Jeremy Dutcher, had won the Polaris Music Prize for his first album, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa (Our Maliseet Songs). Jeremy graduated from Dalhousie with Combined Honours in Social Anthropology and Music in 2013, and the album was released in 2018.
In an interview for CBC Radio’s Unreserved, Jeremy Dutcher, who is a Wolastoqiyik member of the Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick, explained how a conversation with elder Maggie Paul planted the seed for the album. She pointed him to a collection of wax cylinder recordings of Maliseet songs and conversation made by an anthropologist in 1911, now housed in the archives of the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau. Dutcher went to listen to the recordings and has combined the original sounds with his own voice and music to make a spine-tingling blend of old and new. As well as making captivating music, this project helps preserve the highly endangered language of the Wolostoq people.
Jeremy Dutcher wrote his Honours thesis in Social Anthropology on “Traditional Music in a Contemporary Moment: Musical Pan-Indigeneity as Revitalization in the Wabanaki Region.” However, he was a late convert to anthropology. Associate Professor Liesl Gambold recalled how this happened:
I was teaching Introduction to Social Anthropology in summer 2011. Jeremy Dutcher was in my class. On the first day, I had the students introduce themselves and when Jeremy said he was a Voice major – Opera specifically – I think the rest of the class and I looked stunned. In all my years of teaching I had never met anyone majoring in Opera! The summer class moves quickly but about a week in, Jeremy came to my office hours, wanting to chat. I think I started by asking him questions about opera. Soon, he said, “I have a problem. I am two semesters away from graduating with a degree in Music, but I realize after a few days in class that I need to study anthropology.”
This is, of course, the moment we live for as professors: someone has an “ah-ha” moment and feels drawn to the discipline. Despite the late date, if he filled in some required courses, Jeremy could easily complete a double major or even honours degree. Liesl had no idea how much work this was going to mean for him, but she “jumped in with both feet and said I knew we could definitely work it out and it would be fine.” Jeremy said he would have to talk to his family because they expected him to be graduating soon but the rest, as they say, is history. Having introduced him to anthropology, Liesl felt fortunate to also be the one to teach him in the year-long Honours Seminar and help guide his research for his thesis.
From the standpoint of anthropology, drawing especially on Associate Professor Brian Noble’s expertise in Indigenous-settler relations, we think there are three striking things about Jeremy’s composition and performance. First, it disrupts widespread expectations of Indigenous music as a thing of the past, and shows instead how it lives in the present, fully capable of working and remixing in contemporary idioms. This has a decolonizing effect in that it unsettles public conceptions that all too often primordialize and essentialize Indigenous art forms. Instead, it introduces resurgent – maybe even insurgent – forms of expression that embody self-determination.
Second, Dutcher’s handling and honouring of wax cylinder musicological recordings is remarkable. Those recording and collecting practices have dubious origins in the salvage ethos of earlier anthropological work and our discipline is complicit in placing those collections in now anachronistic narratives of progress. But Dutcher went to those recordings and undertook the long and painstaking though very exciting tasks of deep listening, musical and linguistic transcription, and re-composition. He has integrated and invigorated that “archive,” bringing its fruits into his own art and nourishing his own people’s shared language, culture and histories.
Third, the work stands on its own as a deeply personal yet culturally emplaced Wolastoq expression. Dutcher honours intergenerational connections, his voice singing on with the voices of his Elders. He teaches us about how Indigenous resurgence so often speaks to and brings forward the ancestors, making us see the importance of current generations, and the transformative effects they can have upon future generations, meaning Wolastoq and other Indigenous youth. When Dutcher accepted his Polaris prize, he first spoke in Wolastoq: “Psiw-te npomawsuwinuwok, kiluwaw yut! All of my people, this is for you!” and then said in English: “Canada, you are in the midst of an Indigenous renaissance. Are you ready to hear the truths that need to be told? Are you ready to see the things that need to be seen?” (quoted in Brocklehurst, 2018).
Jeremy Dutcher played a solo concert in St. Matthew’s United Church Halifax last June. The atmosphere, according to Associate Professor Martha Radice, was electric, not least because of the proud Wolastoqiyik kin and Mi’kmaw friends in the audience. Dutcher told this story about one of his wax-cylinder inspired compositions. “When I played this song for my community in Tobique First Nation, afterward an elder came up to me and said, ‘Thank you. I haven’t heard that song since my grandma used to sing it to me when I was a little girl. I had forgotten it until I heard you singing it this evening.’” Such a testimony speaks for itself.
You can find out more about Jeremy Dutcher’s musical working process in the video made by CBC’s The National in the video section of his website. You can order his CD or buy tickets for his concerts here.
Brocklehurst, Sean (2018) ‘Profile: “Deep listening”: How Jeremy Dutcher crafted his fascinating Polaris Prize-winning album’. CBC News website, September 18.