Musicians and critics gathered at the Carlu Monday night, September 17, for the Super Bowl of Canadian music nerdery: the Polaris Music Prize gala. Among the various journalists, broadcasters and (as Polaris founder Steve Jordan put it) “filterers” who make up the jury, a couple of winner predictions kept coming up – namely U.S. Girls’ In A Poem Unlimited and Daniel Caesar’s Freudian – but really it felt wide open, like any of the ten albums on the short list could be named the best Canadian album of the year and handed the $50,000 prize.
But when all was said and done, it was a dark horse winner once again: Jeremy Dutcher’s debut album, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa. Here’s why that’s significant.
1. The Indigenous music renaissance
“Canada, you are in the midst of an Indigenous renaissance,” said Dutcher as he accepted his award. “Are you ready to hear the truths that need to be told? Are you ready to see the things that need to be seen?”
The Polaris jury, at least, seems ready. With Dutcher’s win, four out of the last five winners – Tanya Tagaq, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Lido Pimienta and now Dutcher – have been Indigenous. And they’ve all honoured their heritages in different ways. Dutcher’s album is a fascinating and captivating mix of ethnomusicology and contemporary classical composition, blending his show-stopping operatic voice with wax cylinder recordings he unearthed of songs from the Wolastoq First Nation. He thanked his elder, Maggie Paul, who was sitting at his table, and whose voice you hear on the album telling Dutcher “when you bring the songs back, you’re going to bring the people back, you’re going to bring everything back.”
It’s not like this is something new, he said, but part of a continuum of Indigenous excellence that’s just now being recognized.
2. The strength of language
The underrepresentation of Francophone artists is a problem that’s hung over the Polaris Prize for nearly a decade, but last year’s winner, Lido Pimienta’s Spanish-language La Papessa, was significant for being in neither English or French, as she pointed out. This year’s winning album isn’t in English, French or Spanish, but rather Wolastoqey, a language spoken by fewer than 100 people. Dutcher’s album, and especially now with its Polaris crown, could have real power to keep the language alive. “To do it in this language and have it witnessed in every nation, we’re at the precipice of something,” he said.
It goes back to the question of what we mean when we talk about diversity or multiculturalism in music. Pimienta remarked on how glad she was to “see so much melanin” in the room, but it was also invigorating to hear the night’s music encompass so many different tongues: English and French, Wolastoqey, Lingala and Tshiluba, not to mention Indigenous and Maritime slang and also music without any words at all.
3. So many standout performances
Unlike most other awards shows (like, say, the Emmys, which the CBC Polaris livestream was competing against), Polaris only gives out one award at its gala. The rest of the time is filled by performances, which, almost as much as finding out the winner, have become a huge draw. The artists take the opportunity seriously, often crafting one-off mini-sets with a ton of replay value. (Watch them all here.)
Snotty Nose Rez Kids surrounded their fiery, stereotype-destroying rap anthems with dancers, masks, costumes and hand-drum players. U.S. Girls upped the ante of her standout 2016 Polaris performance and did her two-song set with a 12-piece a cappella choir led by local hero Kritty Uranowski and James Baley that included Dorothea Paas, Basia Bulat and Bonjay’s Alanna Stuart among others. Alvvays weren’t there, but they sent a Girls Rock Camp Toronto band called, perfectly, Deep Vvater to perform in their stead.
4. Our French-Canadian Nightmare
One performance deserves its own subheading: Hubert Lenoir, who came in as an underdog nominee but definitely gave the crowd a reason to remember his name. Adorned in a white Crass robe, the Quebec singer played a scorching set of cowbell-laced glam rock. He jumped into the crowd and grabbed a bottle of beer, then finished his set standing on a table while belting out I Will Always Love You and Green Day’s Good Riddance. “Fuck your American dreams,” he shouted. “I am your French-Canadian nightmare.” Then he walked a few steps and sat back down at his own table, bringing his mic with him.
5. A lot of downtime
The one downside to the unique performances is all the time spent waiting around in between. It felt like a very lull-heavy gala this year, despite the highlights. But that’s a small quibble, especially if it means more standout sets.
All in all, it was the strongest short list in a long, long time. Usually there are one or two albums that have me scratching my head, wondering who voted for it, but this year I wouldn’t have been upset if any of the albums won. It felt like the prize could go to anyone, but in retrospect the winner makes total sense. Which is how it should be.
If you haven’t heard Dutcher’s Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, go do that now. It deserves the love. And the dollars.
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