Yo-Yo Ma brings haunting Mi'kmaw anthem to new audience

·3 min read
Elder George Paul, seen near his home in Metepenagiag, wrote Honour Song decades ago. It went on to become an anthem for his people, and continues to reach new audiences with reimagined versions. (Mike Heenan/CBC - image credit)
Elder George Paul, seen near his home in Metepenagiag, wrote Honour Song decades ago. It went on to become an anthem for his people, and continues to reach new audiences with reimagined versions. (Mike Heenan/CBC - image credit)

Elder George Paul of Metepenagiag knew right away that Honour Song would speak to his people.

"I knew it would be important for my people, the Mi'kmaq people, because the song is in the Mi'kmaw language [and] addresses that part of our history," Paul said.

But he never imagined its appeal would grow and broaden over the decades, catching the attention of singers, musicians and orchestras across the country and beyond.

And he certainly never imagined a version of it would be featured on an album by world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

"It's taken off now … this is a new music area," Paul said in an interview. "I didn't realize it would go this far."

Ma's album, Notes for the Future, brings together artists from five continents across nine tracks, including a version of Honour Song by Tobique First Nation operatic tenor Jeremy Dutcher, who had previously released his reimagining of the song in 2017.

Submitted by the artist
Submitted by the artist

The songs on the album were chosen for their ability to capture "the full range of human emotion," Ma's website states, with Honour Song chosen for its power to "invoke our collective responsibility to care for the planet we share."

Dutcher has said collaborating with Yo-Yo Ma on Honour Song, which he grew up hearing his elders sing, has changed his life.

"I'm so grateful to [Yo-Yo Ma] for sharing his platform and allowing so many more people to hear our songs and languages," he said via Instagram.

"Music brings the whole world together like nothing else."

Roots of Honour Song

The roots of Honour Song date back decades.

"The first time I actually recorded it was in Prince Edward Island in 1991, on cassettes," Paul said. "But I wrote the song way before that."

Back in the late 1970s and '80s, Paul was on a journey, in search of heightened spirituality and a reconnection to his roots.

That journey took him across Canada, deep into the woods on days-long fasts to put him in touch with the spirits, to powwows and sweat lodges, and eventually, back to Metepenagiag.

It taught him some troubling lessons — "I learned that we were losing our culture because of assimilation and we need to revive our traditions, customs and values" — and it taught him that he had a role to play in helping to resolve them.

During a sweat lodge session, a man told Paul that he had a song to sing.

"And of course, you know, sweat lodge, that's where things come together," Paul said.

Soon after, he sat down and wrote Honour Song, the song he was meant to sing.

"And I've been singing it ever since," he said.

For Paul, the secret to the song's universal appeal lies in its "spirit."

It's been described by many as haunting, echoing generations of pain and sorrow and yet also embodying hope and healing.

"There's a spirit that moves with the song and touches the soul of the people that hear it," Paul said. "We all have emotions. We all have feelings. And this is where it targets, this is where the spirit goes."

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