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At Mystic Seaport, Eastern Medicine Singers keeping Algonquin language alive by song

 The Eastern Medicine Singers
Provided Photograph
Erin Smithers
The Eastern Medicine Singers

The Eastern Medicine Singers are a group of Indigenous musicians, based in Rhode Island, who have gained a worldwide audience through their original songs and collaborations with non-Indigenous musicians.

The group initially formed as a way to teach Indigenous youth in southern New England the Algonquin language. Daryl “Black Eagle” Jamieson is the group's leader and says having children sing the language rather than speak it helped them learn faster.

“It became a mission for me to just keep the language going by song,” Jamieson said. Eastern Medicine Singers was basically born out of that. “So it was just a simple thing we were doing, and it has grown into so much more since then.”

Jamieson said what sets Eastern Medicine Singers apart from other First Nation drum groups is that their songs are all original and sung in the Massachusett dialect of the Eastern Algonquin.

“So, we translate it into our language and turn it into traditional songs,” said Jamieson. “That’s been our claim to fame because there are not a lot of people doing that around here, and we wanted to keep our own culture here instead of somebody else’s.”

Collaborating with musicians from around the world is another cornerstone of the Eastern Medicine Singers’ success, like at the 2017 SXSW music festival in Austin, Texas. The group was setting up to play when they were approached by Israeli rock guitarist Yonatan Gat, who asked if he could sit in on the set. Jamieson initially said no.

“Rock? I’m not sure we can get into that groove,” said Jamieson. “But he kept saying, ‘Just try it’, so I said yes. We started playing, and I noticed people were crying. I figured they hated us, so I told everyone to grab their drums and head for the door. Someone came running out and said, ‘Hey, come back, they loved it.’ So we came back and did a whole set.”

Eastern Medicine Singers perform Friday, Nov. 4, at 2 p.m. at Mystic Seaport.

Ray Hardman is Connecticut Public’s Arts and Culture Reporter. He is the host of CPTV’s Emmy-nominated original series Where Art Thou? Listeners to Connecticut Public Radio may know Ray as the local voice of Morning Edition, and later of All Things Considered.