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Finding a new voice: how throat singers are making music for a new generation

Editorial Staff

By Samia Madwar

You probably remember Samantha Metcalfe and Cailyn Degrandpre, the 11-year-old throat singers who charmed a countrywide audience on the day of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s swearing-in ceremony last November.

Throat singing demonstrations like theirs are staples of many Inuit cultural events. Usually, the performers explain how throat singing, a longstanding Inuit a cappella tradition, was a form of entertainment that women created for themselves, as well as an ingenious method for soothing fussy babies — the vibrations from the women’s throats can help relax their children cradled in the large hoods of their traditional amautis.

The essence of throat singing has always remained the same: the lyrics are hums, growls and gasps that imitate the soundscape of the natural world of the tundra in a repertoire of regionally distinctive songs. But for over a decade, Inuit artists have been taking the tradition to new, unexplored territory.

Increasingly, modern Inuit throat singers are collaborating with other artists, fusing their ancient genre with storytelling, beat-boxing, folk music and hip-hop. Their experimentation echoes the world of many young Inuit today, caught between ancient traditions and the demands of modern living. It’s also become the anthem of a generation reclaiming their Inuit culture and giving voice to the historic struggles they and their communities continue to face.

'You might never be the same'

When Tiffany Ayalik stepped onstage at the Explorer Hotel in Yellowknife in November 2014, accompanied by Métis singer-songwriter Grey Gritt, it was her first foray into — well, there isn’t really a name for what the two of them were about to do. Ayalik, an Inuit actress from Yellowknife, N.W.T., had been asked to perform at a gala, which was held as part of a week-long conference for indigenous women from around the circumpolar world.

“I said, ‘primarily, I’m an actor. I don’t really have a schtick,’” Ayalik recalls now, speaking on Skype from Denmark, where she’s currently visiting her partner. So she improvised, combining Gritt’s guitar music with storytelling and solo throat singing, echoed back with a loop pedal, to perform the allegorical tale of the Amautalik, a fabled creature of Inuit legend that steals children in the night.

With her throat singing, Ayalik evoked the fearsome growls of the Amautalik and its heavy footsteps as it dragged children away — a subtle reference to the residential school system that separated children from their families. In Ayalik’s tale, one little girl was able to escape and return to her parents with the help of a bird, but she was forever changed. “Even though you might escape,” says Ayalik, “you’ll never be the same afterwards.”

As a second-generation residential school survivor, says Ayalik, the story seems almost prophetic, resonating with those who, like her, continue to face the repercussions of a generation of children taken away from their homes.

Throat singing itself was very nearly lost. For decades, missionaries forbade the practice, as they had done with so many other traditions, and Inuit women were forced to sing in secret. The very act of throat singing became a form of rebellion.

Today, Inuit artists like Ayalik are looking to do more than preserve the tradition.

“I think it’s looking at it like a pendulum,” says Ayalik. “Before, the pendulum could only swing a few degrees. Now, with more education and understanding and empathy of what we’ve been through, and the history of why [throat singing] was a banned practice before ... the pendulum is now in full swing.”

Ayalik credits artists before her, people like Susan Aglukark, the Juno Award-winning singer whose ‘90s hits Ayalik grew up with, as well as outspoken, multi-award-winning throat singer Tanya Tagaq, for encouraging young Inuit artists with their success.

“It’s very exciting” to see young throat singers experimenting with the medium, says Tagaq. “I’m also proud of so many people doing traditional throat singing. It’s good to see it having a revival. I think there’s plenty of room to maintain the longstanding tradition, and there’s plenty of room for people to explore.”

There are some naysayers among Inuit who believe throat singing should only be performed traditionally. Tagaq, who has faced criticism throughout her career, says she finds strength in the support she receives from other prominent Inuit artists. “If I could win people over I could do a tour of Nunavut,” says Tagaq, “and that would be lovely.”

To Ayalik, growth is necessary for survival. “We need to find the balance between strength and flexibility,” she says, “otherwise [throat singing] will go the way of Latin, I guess.”

Opening up

Kathleen Merritt, 27, released her first album, Ice Lines and Sealskin, last summer. In it, she combined throat singing with Celtic music, an homage to her Inuit and Irish heritage.

“It just feels natural that [throat singing] would be taken out of its traditional form and presented in new ways,” says Merritt.

Even men, she says, are beginning to take it up. Nelson Tagoona of Baker Lake, Nunavut, famously combines throat singing with beat-boxing in what he calls “throat-boxing.” One of Merritt’s favourite throat singing partners is Hans-Henrik Poulsen, a 22-year-old actor from Greenland.

As part of his performing arts program at the National Theatre of Greenland in 2013, Poulsen collaborated with artists from Nunavut and Nunavik for a show at the Northern Scene festival in Ottawa that year. Throat singing, banned by the church in Greenland centuries ago, has all but disappeared in Poulsen's home country. So when he encountered throat singing, or katajjaniq in Inuktitut, among his newfound Canadian friends, he asked them to teach him — and also relied a little on YouTube.

“I believe in equality,” he says, unperturbed by the fact that katajjaniqwas traditionally a women’s activity. “I myself sew and make parkas and kamiks [boots],” which are also traditionally women’s activities, he notes. “I like challenges. I also like learning more about my Inuit culture.”

'Leave it to the Inuit'

Even for the most open-minded throat singers, there are some lines that shouldn’t be crossed. Having non-Inuit perform throat singing for an audience is one of them.

That’s why, when a Siberian man demonstrated throat singing — or his version of it — at an Aboriginal Day event in Calgary last summer, he drew criticism from Inuit across the country. Though the performer and his wife had lived in Nunavut communities for years and learned throat singing from Inuit, the act was seen as outright theft. Throat singing, his critics asserted, belongs to Inuit.

It’s problematic, says Merritt, when outsiders try to gain from Inuit culture, “and not acknowledge other areas.”

“Don’t get me wrong; I’ve taught throat singing outside of Inuit culture, for example at schools,” says Merritt. Recently, she and her partner at the time taught a choir in Poland how to throat sing.

“One of the things we asked our students was that, ‘You know, this is something we’re happy to teach you, but ... I wouldn’t incorporate it into your performance. But rather if you have children, you can throat sing to them, or [consider it] something to pass the time,” she says. “But when it comes to performing it, I would leave it to Inuit.’”

To Tagaq, it’s a question of preserving identity. “I do harbour a little bit of protectiveness with throat singing, because it sounds like the land to me,” she says. “It comes from who I am, and I’m Inuk.”

Follow Samia Madwar on Twitter: @madsamia