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Language gets new life

Cutting-edge choir focuses on damage left behind by residential schools

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 4/3/2017 (1181 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

For Winnipeg vocal group Camerata Nova’s formal contribution to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation process, artistic director Andrew Balfour chose a provocative theme.

Taken, the name of the envelope-pushing choir’s second concert of the season, has layers of meaning, especially when attached to First Nations issues and art.

For Toronto-based composer/singer Jeremy Dutcher, the theme was the impetus he needed to translate an idea he’d been working with into the choral composition Masceptasu, which means "It is taken away" in the Maliseet language, Wolastoqey.

JOHN PAILLE PHOTO</p><p>Composer/singer Jeremy Dutcher is from Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick.</p></p>

JOHN PAILLE PHOTO

Composer/singer Jeremy Dutcher is from Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick.

"I had started working on this piece in fragments but it didn’t really come together until Andrew Balfour had asked me to think about putting something together around the theme of ‘taken.’ After that, it started to take shape. I started to pull texts together in my language that were circling that idea.

"There’s so many ways that we can talk about ‘takenness’ when we’re thinking about indigenous identities and issues," says Dutcher, who is from the Tobique First Nation in northern New Brunswick. "There were so many directions that I could have taken, but a lot of the work that I do centres around language. So I wanted to really focus in on what that meant."

Wolastoqey is a particularly endangered language; only about 500 speakers remain.

Part of the reason the language is no longer vibrant is that First Nations children who were removed from their homes and housed in residential schools were punished for speaking in their native tongues.

Dutcher’s grandmother stopped speaking Wolastoqey to his mother when she was six years old, believing it would be safer for her when she went to day school. Nonetheless, his mother did her best to teach him when he was young — "we spoke thank-yous and ‘can you pass me that’ and all the small phrases that she knew growing up," he says — and they speak it now when he calls her at home.

In Masceptasu, Dutcher, a classically trained operatic tenor who studied music at Dalhousie University in Halifax, combines the intangible idea of the loss of language with the "very real takenness that has happened with our young people: this piece is also dedicated to three survivors of the school system in my community, who went to Shubenacadie residential school."

Three voices represent the three students; the choir is accompanied by Dutcher on piano and Leanne Zacharias on cello. At the beginning of the journey, the work has an improvised vibe — "It’s like a soundscape that is pretty freeform and moving," Dutcher says — but it gives way to more structured, classical forms when the students reach the school. Throughout, the cello provides a grounding but haunting theme of "home."

LEIF NORMAN PHOTO</p><p>Conductor Mel Braun rehearses with Camerata Nova on a program that reflects Canadian indigenous history.</p>

LEIF NORMAN PHOTO

Conductor Mel Braun rehearses with Camerata Nova on a program that reflects Canadian indigenous history.

"It can be very difficult at times," the composer says of blending indigenous and classical music styles. "These are two genres that are not often speaking to each other and so they’re distinct musical languages, that’s for sure. There’s some rhythmic qualities, some harmonic qualities that don’t exactly fit into western-style notation or western ways of singing."

Despite the difficulties, or perhaps because of them, Dutcher is carving out a niche as a performer willing to embrace the juxtaposition of two wildly different traditions.

His upcoming album, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa (Our Maliseet Songs), is based on wax-cylinder recordings of traditional Maliseet tunes made by an anthropologist in 1907 and housed in Ottawa’s National Archives.

Dutcher transcribed the melodies of the anthemic East Coast songs and set arrangements around them, including percussive elements, piano and a string quartet.

"I cannot deny my classical training and background, you know?" he says.

He also can’t deny his cultural background. Though he wouldn’t call himself fluent in Wolastoqey — "The F-word is a tough one!" he says, laughing — Dutcher is dedicated to furthering the language through his work.

"The language makes us who we are, and if we don’t have that, then we don’t know who we are. I’m focused on the importance of language in creating a specific Maliseet or Wolastoq worldview."

Also on the Taken program is Saskatchewan-based MC Lindsay Knight, who performs as Eekwol. Camerata Nova, under the direction of Mel Braun, will provide a live beat, adapted from drum songs, for her hip-hop compositions.

Balfour will present the première of Quamaniq (Bright Aura), based on the story of explorer Martin Frobisher, who set out from England in 1576 in the hopes of discovering the Northwest Passage. He failed, but he did encounter some Baffin Island Inuit, whom he took home as curiosities. None of the four who made the journey survived long.

Iqaluit singer Madeleine Allakariallak performs as shaman while Dutcher sings the role of a young kidnapped Inuk man.

Camerata Nova will travel to Ottawa in June to perform Taken as part of the National Arts Council’s Canada Scene Festival, a six-week-long contemporary arts event celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday.

Leif Norman photo</p><p>Camerata Nova artistic director Andrew Balfour goes over a score with conductor Mel Braun.</p></p>

Leif Norman photo

Camerata Nova artistic director Andrew Balfour goes over a score with conductor Mel Braun.

jill.wilson@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @dedaumier

Jill Wilson

Jill Wilson
Senior copy editor

Jill Wilson writes about culture and the culinary arts for the Arts & Life section.

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