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Documentary on musical tradition of Labrador Inuit moves many

(L-R) String players Amos Lidd, Maggie Burton, Dominic Greene, Julius Merkeratsuk and Jean René from Nain and St. John's perform in the Nain Moravian church choir loft. Above is a still capture from the film.


By Emilie Bourque Whittle

There were no red carpets, but there were trumpet fanfares on-screen when a new documentary film, Till We Meet Again: Moravian Music in Labrador, held it's official world premiere last month in Nain, Labrador.

The premiere was followed by screenings in Nunatsiavut and St. John's, with a broadcast screening on CBC set for this summer. Produced and directed by award-winning filmmaker Nigel Markham, Till We Meet Again tells the story of the unique musical tradition of the Labrador Inuit.

In the 18th century, Moravian missionaries from eastern Europe settled among Inuit on the Labrador coast. They came to preach Christianity and one of their tools was music. So began the remarkable tradition of church music in northern Labrador communities. Within a few short years, the music of Haydn and Bach was being performed by Inuit choirs accompanied by small string orchestras. Community brass bands also formed.

The film emerged from a collaboration between Memorial University researchers Drs. Tom Gordon and Tim Borlase, the Nunatsiavut Government and the Moravian Church of Newfoundland and Labrador. Funding was provided, in part, by a substantial grant from the Social Sciences and Research Council of Canada.
The film follows the tour of the Innismara Vocal Ensemble and a group of instrumentalists from St. John's, Newfoundland, as they travel the Labrador coast to perform with local choirs and celebrate a musical legacy that remains fixed in the hearts of the people.

The film was shot over about 10 days last spring during the period from Palm Sunday to Easter Monday in Nain, Makkovik, Hopedale and Happy Valley-Goose Bay. Archival photos and interviews with musician elders are woven throughout the footage of the tour resulting in a rich tapestry of the extraordinary music's past, present and future.

"I was very moved by the documentary Till We Meet Again," expressed Evelyn Lidd, a former Nain resident now living in Happy Valley–Goose Bay. "I could not hold back my tears."

Ms. Lidd's grandfather was a part of the brass band.
"I remember seeing him play on the roof of the Nain church," she said. "I also remember getting up so early with my family and getting ready for church for Easter Sunday. Walking to church and then to the graveyard with the brass band leading the way. We would listen to the minister then sing with the brass band. The song Till We Meet Again was always sung. I always cried while singing it. And listening to it on the video, I had to sing and cry with it. And it put me right there in Nain with the choir and people. I could feel the love and the pain of everyone that we have lost in all those years."

Whether viewers are familiar with the subject of the film or not, there is much to be learned from it.

"Viewers will learn the story of this music and of the Inuit people who shaped it and made it their own," said Dr. Gordon. "At the same time, there's another story here, a story in which what's happened and what's happening to this music offers a view into the whole set dynamic of relations between Inuit and white peoples."

Dr. Gordon says that while the Inuit spent a couple of centuries embracing, adapting and putting their imprint on this imposed music, "the music tradition that resulted has itself become fragile as the wave of southern influence from broadcast media and the Internet washes over northern life to the same extent that it does in the south."

Dr. Gordon sees more to this story than a curious footnote to music history.
"Across the 200 or so years that the Labrador Inuit have had stewardship for this music, they have reshaped it to reflect their values and beliefs. That's not really remarkable in and of itself. Music is an expressive art form," said Dr. Gordon. "But its lesson about the will of a people to express and represent themselves through (even alien) art forms is really powerful."

Another dimension to this project were the students it involved, who came and played Moravian music in Labrador communities.

"As a member of the vocal ensemble Innismara, I received an invitation to take part in this documentary and I was elated," said Rebecca McDonald, a recent School of Music graduate. "The most remarkable part of the experience was the opportunity to immerse myself in a rich, beautiful and brand new — to me — culture."

Ms. McDonald said there were many tears shed from the audience and performers alike.

"Listeners were appreciative, warm, joyful and sometimes they even sang along — it was beautiful. A man approached me after a concert and said, 'I haven't heard this music since I was very young; it reminds me of my mother, and tonight I felt like she was here with me.'"