Wolastoq opera singer and Polaris Music Prize nominee Jeremy Dutcher welcomed the invitation to return to his home province of New Brunswick and perform at this year’s Sappyfest in Sackville, N.B.
“I’m always drawn to home,” the 27-year-old said before his performance on Saturday. “Every time I can come back to my territory, it feels so good,” he said.
Dutcher is originally from the Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick but currently lives in Toronto.
A professionally trained opera singer and piano player, Dutcher performed to a packed audience at the Brunton Auditorium at Mount Allison University as part of Sappyfest, an annual arts and music festival.
Wearing a black tuxedo tailcoat trimmed with traditional Wolatoq beadwork, Dutcher sat at the piano and performed songs from his debut album, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, which means “Songs of the River People” in Wolastoq.
For his album, Dutcher took old recordings of traditional Wolastoq songs and sampled them while he sang the same songs in an operatic voice to a piano arrangement. Dutcher uncovered the recordings of his ancestors, which were made on wax cylinders in the early 1900s, while conducting research at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que.
“When I heard these old voices, it was so amazing. I knew I had to do something with them,” Dutcher explained.
His album, which was released in April, has been shortlisted for the annual Polaris Music Prize. The winner of the prestigious award will be announced during a gala event in Toronto on Sept. 17.
“It’s such an incredible honour to be recognized in that way,” Dutcher said. “The Polaris is just about artistic merit. For me, that’s a really high honour to be given that.”
Several Indigenous artists performed at Sappyfest this year
Dutcher was one of several Indigenous artists invited to take part in the 13th annual Sappyfest, which was held Aug. 3-5. Other performers included writer, musician and academic Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, her sister, singer-songwriter Ansley Simpson and Indigenous cellist Cris Derksen.
“These are artists I’m thrilled by and I think they’re working on such a high level artistically,” Steven Lambke, creative director for Sappyfest, said.
“I’ve always believed in art that has a social, cultural function so to hear Jeremy or to hear Leanne or to read Leanne’s work, it’s opened up so many ideas to me and exposed me to new things,” Lamke said.
For Sappyfest, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson read a selection of her poems to music with her band onstage. The poems were from her book, The Accident of Being Lost, and from her album, Flight.
Simpson compared her onstage performances to traditional Indigenous storytelling.
“You have to be able to communicate something eloquently and gracefully within the context of the music,” Simpson said. “In poetry, all you have is the words. In performance, you’ve got the context of performance and you’ve got the music and music tends to take people on an emotional journey.”
“I’m hoping that audiences go away with a different understanding what it is to be Indigenous and what it is to be an Indigenous musician and, sort of, broaden their understanding of what our artistic practices are about,” she said.