Second album features beautiful music in service of indigenous language and struggle – and a few songs in English
Motewolonuwok by Jeremy Dutcher
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A classically trained operatic tenor and Indigenous activist, Jeremy Dutcher has style.“There’s a lot that a garment can say without having words on it,” he told Vogue magazine in a recent interview. “I want [my style] to dance a line between the traditional and classical, and what people might expect somebody to wear when they come to a concert. And then, queer it up.” (Kirk Lisaj photo)

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Telling hard stories in a beautiful way

Language carries human culture – it holds our history, communication, traditions and more. Saving a language preserves a culture. And that’s a project Indigenous musician Jeremy Dutcher started on his groundbreaking first album and continues in his strong and much anticipated follow-up Motewolonuwok.

Born to an indigenous mother and non-indigenous father, Dutcher is a Wolastoqiyik member of the Tobique First Nation, one of six Wolastoqiyik reserves in New Brunswick. A classically trained operatic tenor and composer, his debut album – Wolastoqiyik Lintowakonawa – was a research project inspired by 110 years-old wax cylinder recordings of traditional Wolastoq songs housed in the Canadian Museum of History. The years-long initiative saw him write and play self-penned music to accompany his ancestors’ voices. The result is a unique neo-operatic collaboration across time featuring his rich piano lines and moving vibrato singing in his native tongue. The album won the Polaris Music Prize in 2018 and Best Indigenous Recording at 2019’s JUNO Awards.

The work was personal and no language translations were offered. “That was very much a project of making people uncomfortable and letting them sit in the not knowing,” he told Exclaim! magazine in September.

“It was also about a direction for the work and pointing it towards the community and saying: this is for no one else but you.” The issue was close to home. During the pandemic he recounts a friendly exchange between his mother and father: “She looked him in the eye and said, ‘As an act of reconciliation, I want you to learn my language.'”

“To his credit, since then he’s been really trying,” says Dutcher. “We get together on Zoom every Sunday as a family and try to teach the ones that don’t quite know yet.” Furthermore, Dutcher’s mother, Lisa Perley-Dutcher, is the founder of a new language school in Wolastokuk (Fredericton) where a dozen children, aged 3 to 5, are learning the language of the Wolastoqiyik. Currently there are about 100 people who speak it and most of them are older than 65.

On his new recording Dutcher broadens his musical vision and social advocacy. The music is bolder than on his first recording and includes original songs some of which are in English.“My world is one between English and Wolastoqey,” he told SOCAN magazine Words and Music.

“On any album, you’re inviting people into your world and how you see it. Mine is bilingual, and I wanted to make a record like that. For my first record it was important for me that it was all not in English.

“It then had this life outside, and won all these awards, and I realized people were hungry for knowledge about us. The switch to English now was about directly communicating with the people that had gathered around the work.”

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Laurence Aloir photo

The music

Dutcher is a passionate man. You hear it in how he speaks, his compositions, vocals and bold touch on the piano. In a brief video he offered some thoughts on the essence of the album. Here’s an edited version:

“Motewolonowuk, the people of great spiritual power, those who work with what can be heard but not seen. Magicians. Witches. And, when you look it up in our dictionaries, that’s what it says. ‘Motewolonuwok: Witches’. And for me the whole process of naming my record, this word is about reclaiming that term. Taking it back and understanding that the magic is inherent in who we are. And coming together and sharing that with each other is what we’re here to do.

“The music of Motewolonowuk … I wanted it to be like an expansion of the sound world of the first record so that a string quartet then becomes an orchestra or a couple [of] singers become a whole choir … that to me felt like a really good way to zoom in and try to tell these hard stories in a beautiful way.

“This record is an exploration of healing through collectivity and the importance of singing with each other. I think about that in my own life and how whether it’s Indigenous community or Queer community [that] has lifted me up at different points throughout my life … these Queer beings that are so precious and so sacred and carry so much wisdom … have not been listened to. To find and re-engage with that balance and the sacredness of Queer people and what we offer to the human community … that’s what this record is about.”

Musically Motewolonuk’s foundation is Dutcher’s compositions, voice and piano. The arrangements are lifted by the sweeping strings on various songs and the choirs under the direction of respected Canadian musician and producer Owen Pallet. A Polaris Prize winner, he is known for his work with Arcade Fire and numerous artists like Taylor Swift, the National, the Pet Shop Boys and more.

Dutcher’s classical training and operatic tenor are balanced by his Wolastoq musical background, plus his chamber pop and neo-classical sensibilities.

“But I kind of struggle in this world too, of this operatic canon,” he explains to Exclaim!. “The music might be nice, but sometimes the stories are rather misogynist or racist. They carry a lot of baggage with them. So all the time, I’m trying to tell better stories. I was raised with these beautiful philosophies and this language and this understanding, so how do I bring that into this space?”


Dutcher is a strong advocate for his Woloastoqiyik community but embraces all indigenous struggle in Canada. “That’s my form of resistance, my form of activism… through song and through language,” he told online magazine Ludwig von Toronto.

He identifies as Two-Spirit which refers to someone who moves fluidly through the gender spectrum. The term is used by Indigenous people and can come with some peril. He quotes Two-Spirit native activist Richard LaFortune who said, “The place where two discriminations meet is a dangerous place to live.”

“That intersection,” Dutcher told Exclaim!, “has equal amounts of pain, equal amounts of beauty…it’s the duality of that experience that I wanted to look at and write around.”

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(Kirk Lisaj photo)

Four songs

And so, alongside the beauty of his new compositions for Motewolonuwok there are songs addressing harsh realities facing Indigenous peoples in Canada. The Land That Held Them and Ancestors Too Young are a couple.

“I just sat and wrote them in a free, stream-of-consciousness way, based on my own experience as a young Indigenous person, and this situation in which we find ourselves,” he told Words and Music.

The impetus behind The Land That Held Them comes from Nina Simone‘s pointed 1964 civil rights protest song Mississippi Goddam written during the height of Black unrest in the U.S.

“It was such a direct form of history-telling and truth bearing,” Dutcher told Exclaim!. “An unapologetic statement. I thought, what’s our ‘Mississippi Goddam’? What’s our ‘Saskatchewan Goddam’? What’s our ‘Edmonton Goddam’? We need to hear that.”

The song’s verses cover three criminal incidents – two of them recent – against Indigenous people.
• The first is about 15-year old Tina Fontaine from the Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba who was murdered in 2014 and found in Winnipeg’s Red River.

• The second addresses the shooting death in Saskatchewan of 22 year-old Colten Boushie who was shot in the back of the head by a Saskatchewan farmer in 2016 who was acquitted of murder.

• The third focuses on the “starlight tours” done by Saskatoon police dating back to 1976. Police would arrest drunken indigenous men and women and drop them off in sub-zero temperatures on the outskirts of the city.

Ancestors Too Young is about the suicide crisis among Indigenous youth. “That [song] came from going up north to communities in Ontario and seeing the devastation of the suicide epidemic,” Dutcher said in a recent interview with Vogue magazine. “Sometimes groups of young people get wiped out, like a chain reaction. I wanted to shine a light on people telling these really hard stories, but also seeing them surrounded by community, music, and healing.”

The rousing Pomawsuwinuwok Wonakiyawolotuwok – which translates to “people are rising” – is a “resistance song for all voices.” Says Dutcher: “Inspired by a traditional Wolastoq melody that is expanded on, this song was supposed to be on my first record, but I could never find a way to make the chorus right. I wanted to write a song that flowed between Wolastoqey language and English, in hopes of calling as many to the table as possible to witness the rising.”

our struggle isn’t
in the fields [as it once was] it’s in the streets
the people are rising  

Dutcher cowrote Take My Hand with Ontario’s Basia Bulat. It’s a pure and unabashed love song destined to spawn many cover versions and has the singer finding his inner crooner.

“That song is special, and came from a collaborative process over several years,” says Dutcher. “The original melody came from an elder, Maggie Paul, who was influential on my first record. It was only one verse, and she sang it for me in English, telling me, ‘Go sing the song for the people – young people are forgetting how to love each other.’

Then, on a songwriting session with Basia, I played it for her. She said, ‘Let me work on this a bit,’ and later she sent me a video of her singing the song, and seven verses of handwritten lyrics, for me to use however I wanted. To me, the song has such a beautiful message: ‘Take my hand and walk with me.’ Let’s have a discussion and walk together.”

Kurated is a music sharing project.
Kris Sig Plastic V3

11 November 2023


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