Music and faith in Labrador

Hans
Hans Rollmann
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I have just returned from an invigorating heritage forum that the Nunatsiavut government organized in Makkovik, Labrador.

On the departing afternoon, Gary Mitchell and several young people entertained us with their music, from aboriginal drum dancing to the heart-rending recent composition of Jamiee Thomas, “He Walked This Far,” about the tragic death on the ice of 14-year-old Burton Winters. Later, when I flew over the spot where his body was found, so close to Makko­vik, the song still rang in my ears.

Makkovik, like all the communities on the Labrador Coast, has a vibrant musical tradition, which was significantly shaped and enriched by Moravian music sung and performed by Inuit for more than 200 years. I have pleasant memories of sitting in the living room of the late Uncle Jim Andersen and speaking with him about his music and a wealth of other topics, and of listening to his sister Inga perform in her home some favourite Moravian hymns on a harmonium that her father had bought from the departing missionary Berthold Lenz in 1932.

On one evening of the forum, we saw the remarkable documentary “Till We Meet Again …” by filmmaker Nigel Markham and Dr. Tom Gordon from MUN’s School of Music. This documentary follows St. John’s-based singers and musicians as they perform together with local choirs during the Easter season. As they travel and sing, we not only hear and see the story of Moravian music in Labrador, but also sense how deeply felt and identity-building this music became for Inuit and settlers living on Labrador’s north coast.

In the film, we learn that the European music was transformed by the Labrador Inuit over 200 years and how Inuit choirs and organists were crucial in providing continuity to this living tradition. This excellent film is a must-see for all interested in the province’s history and culture.

It is hard to find any criticism with such an impressive documentary that has already received the enthusiastic approval of all those who saw it on the coast.

If I were to raise a criticism, it would be perhaps the overly cautious way in which the film acknowledges the main driving force behind this music: Christian faith. While Moravian music became indeed identity-building for communities and produced a rich musical culture that is still treasured today, it was the liturgical and personal faith experience of Inuit that made this music last and run so deeply.

When I saw one of the Inuit musical performers in the film, I could not help but remember his long and fervent public prayer that he had prayed in Inuktitut in the church at Nain. His dedication to music appears to spring from that same spiritual well.

When people gathered in the early morning hours at Easter in the Moravian cemetery, which the Inuit called “Gudib perorsēvinga” (in German “Gottesacker” or, in English, “God’s acre”), it was not merely a community event but a congregational affirmation of their faith. The religious meaning attached to Moravian ceme­teries was that bodies were sown here into the earth to await the resurrection, just as the Apostle Paul had written to the Corinthians: “So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable.”

When the first missionary, Johann Schneider, was buried in Hopedale in October 1785 as “the first seed in hope of a joyous resurrection,” the diary read that “just as our dear saviour lay in the earth and gently rested after his sufferings were over, thus he also made our graves quiet places of rest until he desires to resurrect our bodies again.”

When Inuit Moravians sang and heard on Easter the names read of those who had died during the previous year, they confessed in their own words “Illa makkisimavok!” (He is risen indeed!) There and then, they also proclaimed through their hymns and brass music that life was not confined to this earth, not even to their communities, but that their hope lay in the resurrection of their mortal bodies to immortality, for which Christ had become the first fruit and guarantor.

 

Hans J. Rollmann is a professor of religious studies at Memorial University and can be reached by email at hrollman@mun.ca

Organizations: School of Music, Corinthians

Geographic location: Labrador, Makkovik, Inuktitut Hopedale

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