By Deantha Edmunds-Ramsay
I grew up on the West Coast of Newfoundland, and my formative years were enriched with family, music, books, and the majestic beauty of ‘The Rock.’ Words took me on journeys through time and around the world. My father quietly shared stories of his family and their life in Nunatsiavut, and my mother and her mother talked of our roots in Ireland. Hearing their words, spoken and sung, made me hungry to know more. I wanted to feel what it was like to make the first footprints in fresh snow in Labrador, and to move to the lilting songs of my Irish ancestors.
Piano lessons, summer ukulele workshops, concert band, choral ensembles, voice lessons. Hours upon hours each week were devoted to learning and making music and I was fortunate to have amazing support from my family. I fell in love with classical music, especially the German lied of Schubert, arias from Mozart’s operas, Fauré’s dreamy chansons, and oratorio arias by Mendelssohn and Vivaldi.
I studied the lyrics, learning how to pronounce them properly in German, Italian, French, Latin. I wanted to know what every word meant. I dreamed of being a classical singer.
Although he had no formal music lessons, my father was a beautiful singer and played the guitar like a star. Every Christmas Eve, he sang his favorite carols to us in English, German, and Inuktitut, as he had learned them as a young boy in Labrador. He taught me to pray in Inuktitut. I can still picture the words in his little old bible, in which his family tree was written.
When people found out that I was Inuk, and a classical soprano, they would often say, ‘Oh wow! An Inuit opera singer! What does Inuit opera sound like? Do you throat sing?’ I have always been fascinated by throat singing and hope someday to explore this ancient tradition. I would patiently explain that there is no such thing as ‘Inuit opera,’ but that I was very proud to be recognized in the Aboriginal community as the first classical singer of Inuit descent. My roots, and my passion for classical music, did not seem to go together.
Almost 10 years ago, I learned of the fascinating work of Dr. Tom Gordon, a musicologist and pianist, and at that time, the Director of the School of Music at Memorial University of Newfoundland. He spent over a decade researching hundreds of manuscripts of classical sacred music that Moravian missionaries brought to the coast of Labrador in the 18th century. Not only was this music translated into Inuktitut, but it was also adapted by the Inuit over time. I remember my first communication with Dr. Gordon. He sent me a copy of one of the soprano solo arias from Handel’s famous oratorio, The Messiah, and I was amazed to see the Inuktitut text. Now THIS was the music for me! I asked Dr. Gordon if any of this wonderful archival music had ever been recorded and from that conversation, many unique opportunities have come my way. I am fortunate to have realized one of dreams, in recording the CD Pillorikput Inuit: Inuktitut Arias for All Seasons.
Thanks to a grant from artsnb, I travelled to Newfoundland at the end of 2105 and the recording project took place in St. John’s in January 2015. In the fall of that year, the album was launched with a tour of Nunatsiavut, once again, with thanks in part to artsnb. Dr. Gordon played the organ, and well-known tenor Karrie Obed from Nain joined us in several duets that we included on the cd. He is respected as a tradition-bearer at the forefront of the musical life of Inuit Labrador. Sharing this beautiful, one-of-a-kind music in the humble Moravian churches of Labrador, was a great privilege, and life-changing for me. On my travels, I reconnected with family that I had not seen in over 2 decades, and I also met some family members for the very first time. I felt at home, as if all the pieces of the puzzle that is my life finally fit.
Pillorikput Inuit was the first classical album to be nominated for an East Coast Music Award in the Aboriginal Artist category in 2016. What a thrill!
This past October, another historical event took place – the biennial Inuit Studies Conference, co-hosted by MUN and the Nunatsiavut Government. Inuit from around the globe took over St. John’s and it was beyond exciting. Inuit from all walks of life came together, gave presentations, participated in panel discussions and explored issues such as language, health, education, the environment, to name a few. At the same time, the katingavik inuit arts festival celebrated Inuit creativity in music, visual arts and film. artsnb was instrumental in taking me once again to the right place at the right time. I performed a number of the Moravian arias and duets with Karrie Obed and Dr. Gordon, and was accompanied by MUN’s chamber choir and orchestra! The concert was held at The Kirk, St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in beautiful downtown St. John’s. The well-respected Nain Brass Band performed on the program as well. The acoustics were incredible, and it was an honor to perform for a full audience, including Natan Obed, President of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, as well as Maatalii Okalik, President of the National Inuit Youth Council.
NOW when people ask me about being Inuk and a classical singer, I am excited to explain that being from Nunatsiavut, this is not unnatural! The chance to share this wonderful music and its history far and wide brings me delight and pride like nothing else. My deep thanks to artsnb for helping me make these career dreams come true.
Soprano Deantha Edmunds-Ramsay is from Newfoundland & Labrador. She studied music and the arts at Acadia University and Concordia University. She has also studied privately with some of Canada’s top voice teachers. Deantha has performed on stages throughout Canada and abroad. Her most recent performance was in St. John’s, Newfoundland, in a concert of sacred Moravian Inuktitut arias, accompanied by MUN chamber choir and orchestra. This concert was part of the katingavik inuit arts festival, during the international Inuit Studies Conference in October, 2016. Deantha composed a song in Inuktitut and English for the 2016 Labrador Winter Games. This original composition is entitled ‘AVANI’ which means ‘up North.’ She performed the song with Inuit drum dancers and throat singers for a full stadium including dignitaries from throughout Newfoundland and Labrador who gave the performance a standing ovation. “Pillorikput Inuit: Inuktitut Arias for All Seasons” is a CD featuring Deantha as the soprano soloist. The album was launched in the fall of 2015, with a performance tour of Nunatsiavut. It was nominated for a 2016 East Coast Music Award, in the Aboriginal Artist category, the first time a classical album has been nominated in this category. Solo engagements throughout New Brunswick in the past few years include Mozart’s ‘Requiem,’ Bach’s Christmas Oratorio’ and Handel’s ‘Messiah’ with the Fredericton Choral Society & Chamber Orchestra, Handel’s ‘Messiah’ with the Symphony Chorus & Chamber Orchestra at Trinity Church in Saint John, Rossini’s ‘Petite Messe Solennelle’ and Schubert’s ‘Mass in B-Flat Major’ with Colla Voce at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Rothesay. Deantha was the guest soloist at Rothesay’s St. Paul’s Anglican Church 150th anniversary Evensong service at which the Honourable Graydon Nicholas, Lieutenant-Governor of New Brunswick was a guest speaker. Her next performance will be as a soloist in Bach’s ‘Mass in B minor’ with Colla Voce in Rothesay. As well as teaching music at independent elementary school Touchstone Academy and working as an Aboriginal Student Advisor at New Brunswick Community College, Deantha has a great love of performing. She shares this passion with a large studio of private voice students.