How musicians are keeping endangered languages alive

From Yiddish to Garifuna to Wolastoqey, these artists are preserving their languages through song


“I struggle to talk about languages as dying,” says Jeremy Dutcher, the singer/songwriter whose 2018 Polaris Prize–nominated debut Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa has garnered widespread acclaim since it was released in April. “That [dying language term] often gets put on this project because there are so few speakers [of Wolastoqey, the language of the album]. 

“But as one of my elders, Maggie Paul, says, ‘Our languages are in our songs. They never died. They had to go away for a while for safekeeping. Now is the time to bring them back.’ I let those words guide the work I do.” 

Hailing from the Tobique First Nation, one of seven Wolastoq communities that run up and down the Wolastoq River, the Maliseet who still speak Wolastoqey are thought to be a mere 100 – primarily elders. The near disappearance of the language transpired after decades of governmental control such as the Indian Act, residential schools and other Western religious suppression, which all aggressively devalued and dissuaded its use. 

“It [eventually] became this self-policing thing or something we took on because of the messages from the church and schools,” expounds Dutcher. “‘There’s nothing for you in your language. There’s no use in speaking it because if you want a job you have to speak English or French.’ So there was this systematic undervaluing.”

What was lost was more than language, but identity. Which might explain why so many First Nations communities are aiming to preserve their languages through art. 

“We’re just so hungry for language because it’s a rather recent phenomenon for it to be taken away from the community and we want it back,” says Dutcher. “It’s vital to who we are and it tells us how to live and relate to each other.”

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You can have a bunch of documents explaining the value of something but a song can say everything in seconds,” says Stonetree Records head Ivan Duran. “That’s the power of music. They don’t call it a universal language for nothing.” 

Societal devaluing transformed into revitalization is something Belizean producer Ivan Duran can attest to. In 1995 he founded the now Montreal-based label, Stonetree Records. It was one of the first to focus on the sparsely spoken language and music of Central America’s Garifuna culture, which at the time was chiefly used in song but little in daily life due to a convergence of events.

“You can blame it on globalization. You can blame it on cable TV, which in Belize was a big shock in the 80s. We were pretty much invaded by American television. And the lack of economic opportunities. There’s a sense that if you don’t speak English, and if you don’t try to migrate to the U.S., your opportunities are few back home.” 

Surprisingly it would be this disappearing language within Belize, a country where Garifunas are only 5 per cent of its population, that would put the country on the world’s radar. 

“Apart from the [coral] reefs and tourist activities, most of the world knows Belize because of Garifuna music. It has always been very important for the language and also for the sense of pride in the culture because the music became its first export – the first product of the culture that actually travelled around the world and became recognized. And that created a big sense of pride in the community.”

Similar to how Bob Marley’s music that illuminated Jamaica and expounded a way of life, Garifuna’s music and language resurgence has not just inspired the world, but also new generations.

“Younger kids have become interested in the language, music and culture.”

In 2001, UNESCO declared language, dance and music of the Garifuna part of its Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

“That’s the power of music,” says Duran. “They don’t call it a universal language for nothing. You can have a bunch of documents explaining the value of something but a song can say everything in seconds.”

While that act of preservation can create a sense of pride and community, sometimes a language teetering on the edge of extinction has endured such historical trauma that revitalizing it requires as much healing as it does celebration. 

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Sophie Milman is part of a group of musicians bringing rediscovered Yiddish songs back to life as part of Ashkenaz Festival on Tuesday (August 28).

University of Toronto scholar and historian of Yiddish culture, professor Anna Shternshis was researching for a book on Soviet Jewish history and culture during the Holocaust when she came across an archive at Vernadsky National Library in Kiev.

“I was interested in how Yiddish speakers made sense of the war. Almost half of the Jews that were killed in the Holocaust were from the Soviet Union and the majority of them were Yiddish speakers and their history is not very well known.” 

Shternshis’s discovery of rare Yiddish songs recorded and collected from “people who didn’t make it usually to the end of the war” was a revelation. 

Shternshis was interested in why people sing before they die, sing in the midst of violence, and use music as historical documents, even as eyewitnesses. The songs were eventually put to music with the guidance of composer Psoy Korolenko and became the album Yiddish Glory: The Lost Songs Of World War II. The songs are rare – many of them were by women and children, and in Yiddish, a language nearly annihilated by genocide. 

“Of the 6 million Jews killed, half a million were Yiddish speakers – that was two-thirds of Yiddish speakers that were alive in the world in 1945. That took a toll on the language. That’s something we often talk about [in regards to] First Nation languages in Canada and Australia, the world. 

There’s another factor, she says, to the reduction of the Yiddish language.

“Israel, the only [official Jewish state], has a very ambivalent attitude to Yiddish. They associate Yiddish with weakness, genocide, Jews who were killed as opposed to Jews who resisted. ‘We have to forget Yiddish. We have to develop Hebrew. No Yiddish schools,’ etc. Pretty much, they actively suppressed it.”

On Tuesday (August 28) at Koerner Hall, as part of the Ashkenaz Festival, over 70 years later, these “lost” Yiddish songs will be sung live. Juno Award–winning vocalist Sophie Milman, whose grandmother was a Holocaust survivor who escaped to Kazakhstan, is one of a program of musicians who will use her voice to bring the voices of those who’ve passed to life.

“I’ve never been a part of a project of historical significance that is meant to educate and inform while also entertaining and moving,” explains Milman. “It’s also in Yiddish – a language I neither speak, nor understand!” 

Milman first found translations in Russian, her mother tongue, and then learned the songs phonetically, drawing on her fluency in Russian and Hebrew to try to approximate the accent and feel. 

There’s new interest in Yiddish, Shternshis says. Indeed, the Ashkenaz Festival includes a number of other artists who use the language in their work, including Socalled, Eleanor Reissa, Bashevis Singers and Olga Meileszczuk. But the interest is not all coming from where you’d think.

“Yiddish used to be an exclusively Jewish language. Now it’s changing,” she says. “Half the people who are performing on this project are not Jewish. I teach Yiddish at U of T and half of my students, or more, are not Jewish. So it’s changing from this heritage language from a certain culture, into something new: a culture that treasures the past.” 

In Canada and the United States, there have been more Jews learning Yiddish, and there’s a political bent to it, she says. “Jews fighting for civil rights and Jews thinking about humanity, freedom and equal rights. People who lived without an army for the whole existence of their language.”

Dutcher (who co-headlines Danforth Music Hall on December 15 alongside Jennifer Castle) sees politics in what he does, too, and says that revitalizing his language via his music is now his life’s work. 

“We still have first language speakers in the older generation, so right now is the time to engage it and activate it so that we don’t lose it for good.”

music@nowtoronto.com | @chakavgrier

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