Jeff Doreen Covers Pop Songs With Kanien'kéha Lyric Translations
A Hamilton man's attempt to preserve the language of his ancestors
has taken him farther than he ever thought possible from
humble YouTube beginnings to teaching a Grammy-winning, multi-platinum
selling musician a new way to sing one of his own songs.
Karonhyawake Jeff Doreen, a local teacher who is Mohawk, has
been striving for years to keep the Mohawk language Kanien'kéha
If the language were
to die, then where are the thoughts of those people? They're
gone and to me, that's a huge tragedy.
- Karonhyawake Jeff
He does so in part by recording covers of well-known pop songs
by acts like the Beatles and translating them.
One of those tunes was posted online, and caught the attention
of the stepmother of Dave Matthews Band bassist Stefan Lessard,
who is also Mohawk. She suggested he try his hand at a Dave Matthews
Doreen was a big fan of the band but doing a translation
was easier said than done. "Dave crams a lot of words into
small spaces," Doreen laughed from his home on the Mountain.
That makes translating tricky. Words are much longer in Kanien'kéha
than in English, and if the topics centre heavily on English metaphors,
they can be tough to translate.
He settled on Where Are You Going, a hit from Dave Matthews
Band's 2002 album Busted Stuff.
Someone from the band saw his YouTube cover, and he was brought
backstage at the band's show in Saratoga Springs, New York last
month where he met Matthews and taught him some of the lyrics to
one of his own songs.
"It was pretty wild," he said.
The Need To Preserve Aboriginal Culture
The spectacle of meeting music superstars aside Doreen's
song translations highlight a real need for preservation of Aboriginal
culture and language.
Jeff Doreen teaches at Prince of Wales Elementary school in
Hamilton. He met Dave Matthews backstage at a show last month.
(photo courtesy of Karonhyawake Jeff Doreen)
According to the 2011 census, only 400
people in Ontario now refer to Mohawk as their mother tongue, with
190 people responding that it is their language spoken most often
at home, and 470 people responding that it's a language spoken regularly
Kanien'kéha isn't Doreen's first language. He remembers
as a kid hearing his grandparents and great grandparents speaking
it, and not really understanding what they were saying.
His grandmother did make efforts to teach him as a teenager
but like many teenagers, it wasn't a huge priority for him.
As he got older, he watched those relatives pass away, and their
language start to die with them. As his grandmother's mortality
started becoming more evident, he made a promise to himself to be
able to speak with her in Mohawk.
"I really wanted to be able to talk to her in the language,"
he said. "If I don't pick up the baton she's trying to pass
on to me, who will?"
Thanks to some adult education courses at Six Nations, Doreen
was able to speak to his grandmother in Kanien'kéha before
her death in 2008 something he still holds dear.
A Lack Of Resources
But it was while learning he realized there was a lack of resources
to really get these words and phrases to sink into his mind.
Many instructors of second languages suggest watching movies
and listening to music in the language you're trying to learn, hence
the translation videos of pop songs, which Doreen hopes can be a
resource for other people trying to do the same thing.
"Language is a world view of a people group, and your identity
is found in that language," he said. "If the language
were to die, then where are the thoughts of those people?
"They're gone and to me, that's a huge tragedy."