With the arrival of Moravian missionaries in the 18th century among the Labrador Inuit came music — used as a teaching tool when it came to preaching the Christian faith.
Beginning as hymns, the church music grew to include compositions by Mozart and Bach, just decades old and translated into Inuktitut, and performed by Inuit choirs, small string orchestras and community brass bands.
Former MUN School of Music head Tom Gordon has been researching the old choral manuscripts of Labrador, found in the churches of Hopedale and Nain.
His interest lies in tracing the pieces as they have been copied down and taught over the years and examining how they have been molded and shaped to reflect specific beliefs and culture.
A couple of years ago, Gordon was inspired to come up with a new project: putting together a choir and a small orchestra, pairing them with Labrador choirs and breathing new life into the music.
From that, came another idea: to put the whole thing on film.
Gordon recruited award-winning local filmmaker Nigel Markham, whose documentary “Till We Meet Again” — a collaboration with Gordon, MUN researcher Tim Borlase, the Nunatsiavut Government and the Moravian Church of Newfoundland and Labrador — will air on television tonight as part of CBC-TV’s Summer Series.
Markham’s no stranger to Labrador: he has produced previous film portraits of the Labrador Inuit, including “The Last Days of Okak” and “Eye of the Storm.”
“I had spent a lot of time in Labrador when I was younger and I’ve done films there before, but nothing that focused on the music itself. It’s something I wasn’t deeply aware of until Tom got me involved,” Markham said.
Throughout the film, Markham followed St. John’s-based vocal ensemble Innismara, led by Kellie Walsh, and a group of instrumentalists on a tour along the Labrador coast, performing with local choirs and musicians and learning the traditional music of the area.
The biggest challenge for the members of Innismara was their decision to learn the music in Inuktitut, the Inuit language.
“They brought two people down from Nain, one who kind of became their lead singer — he’s the lead tenor of the choir in Nain — and the organist. They came down to kind of introduce them to the music and the language,” Markham explained.
“They had real problems with the phrasing; where to break it up and where to put the emphasis on one note or another.”
Shot in Nain, Makkovik, Hopedale and Happy Valley-Goose Bay over 10 days in 2011 between Palm Sunday and Easter Monday, the backbone of “Till We Meet Again” is Innismara’s visits to the communities and their discovery of the people and culture of the areas. Markham has also interspersed interviews with Labrador elders and archival photos.
The people in Nain were impressed with the group’s effort when it came to language, Markham said, and many were touched by the result. Tears were shed by locals attending the performances, who heard songs that had been long forgotten or last sung by grandparents and were sung anew. Some sang along, letting the tunes pass their lips for the first time in decades.
Others are hopeful the film will entice a younger generation back into the church, either for the music or the culture.
“A lot of the local people, particularly the people in the choirs and associated with the church, were really quite happy to have these people coming up and honouring their music and playing with them,” Markham said.
“There was a really nice feeling happening.”
“Till We Meet Again,” titled after a Moravian hymn, is partly an historical documentary, partly anthropological, and partly a travel film.
The film debuted last March as part of the official dedication celebrations for the Nunatsiavut Government’s new assembly building in Hopedale, and then saw screenings in the Hopedale Moravian Church, and centres in Nain and Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
It will air on CBC tonight at
8:30 p.m. in Newfoundland, 8 p.m. in Labrador.