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Aakuluk Music: Nunavut's first record label is ready to rock the Arctic

Andrea Warner

Iqaluit-based band the Jerry Cans release their newest album, Inuusiq / Life, on Friday, Nov. 4 (it’s streaming now via CBC Music), and with it comes a major breakthrough for their musically rich community: the launch of Nunavut’s first record label, Aakuluk Music.

Aakuluk is a term of endearment,” explains the Jerry Cans’ Nancy Mike, who co-founded the label alongside bandmates Steve Rigby and Andrew Morrison. “It's not necessarily ‘I love you,’ but it's something that you say to your children, your parents, your friends. Anybody, really, that you want to show affection.”

Pronounced "a-coo-look," the term is also a crucial value of the label and those involved. 

“We want to work with lots of young people and sort of share things we can celebrate in Nunavut,” Morrison, a former CBC Radio producer who is also Mike’s husband, explains, joining his wife on the call from their home in Iqaluit. “There's lots of times, as people see in the media, that there's lots of more challenging things that happen in our lives up here, so we wanted to have that always as one of the sort of grounding philosophies of the label.”

As the sole born-and-raised Inuk member of the band, Mike says that there are many misconceptions of what life is really like for the people who actually live, work and create in northern communities. This record label is one opportunity to regain agency over their own stories.

“One of our passions is to really inform others about what it's like here and what our language and culture means,” Mike says. “Being segregated from the rest of Canada — we live a very different lifestyle and not a lot of people know what it really is like up here.”

Not that there isn’t a cost associated with consistently being in an educator position.

“Some people have stereotypical ideas of Inuit [culture] or what it's like up here,” Mike says. “And it can get frustrating and it can really get tiring to always have to educate non-stop when when we're travelling, for example. But I’m very much passionate about my culture and who I am and where I come from, so I have that passion to just teach all the time, no matter what the circumstances are.”

Morrison, who has lived in Nunavut since he was two years old, says that the major misconceptions surround the state of language and culture in the North. He and Mike hope that Aakuluk Music will help change that by giving Nunavut musicians a sense of autonomy, but also a sense of place that the Jerry Cans couldn’t find as a northern band trying to crack the southern Canadian music market.

“When we wanted to distribute our music, we contacted record labels in the south and we sent them like, our music, and they would reply back, ‘Oh, we really do like your sound, but we can't understand what you're singing about so, no, we can't take you,’” Mike recalls. “We always have to take the extra effort to make something happen and that one example is a big statement for what Aakuluk Music is gonna be, and what I hope it will be in the future. Our goal is to give young people or whoever, any artist, that opportunity to bring their music in their own language and be able to express what it's like for them to be living in the Arctic, or be Indigenous.”

Morrison points to the relatively recent success of Indigenous artists like A Tribe Called Red and Tanya Tagaq as people who are starting to challenge the gatekeepers of Canadian music. Aakuluk has three other acts on its roster in addition to the Jerry Cans: throat singer and poet Ivaluarjuk, singer-songwriter Riit and roots-rock musician Agaaqtoq.

“English is the dominant language in the music industry down south, and we really pride ourselves on singing in Inuktitut,” Morrison says. “And we really pride ourselves that when young kids, in communities across Nunavut, are screaming the lyrics of our songs in Inuktitut, we think that's really important. We want songs in their heads to be in Inuktitut because I think the power of English is so strong these days and it's getting stronger with the internet and these different levels of globalization. When we kept talking to people in the south and they kept saying that ‘I love it, but,’ the message was constantly being sent to us that if you sang in English it would be a completely different story. What message does that send to young people in Nunavut if they want to start a career in music? We wanted to really challenge that, and create a space and create an organization where young people who are very proud to sing in Inuktitut, they can, and they can have support, and they can have support in the industry.”

Reaffirming cultural pride and practice in young people is also an important component of decolonization.

“One of our passions is to de-colonize and plant a seed in young people that they are strong human beings,” Mike says. “[That they can be] Indigenous or Inuk and that they can speak their own language and not have to always be speaking in English or expressing their feelings in English. When I was a kid in junior high, it was more cool to be ‘white.’ Going to school, smelling like seal meat for example, you were made fun of, and it wasn't cool to eat that, so one of the songs that we have is about really enjoying seal meat as part of your diet. Little things like that that send messages to the younger generation; we want to really encourage them to be proud of who they are.”

“I’m non-Inuk, I’m a non-Indigenous white guy, and part of what we try to talk about in Nunavut is that non-Indigenous people have a role in decolonization,” Morrison says. “It is not just the responsibility of Indigenous people. All of our communities that have to go through this process of understanding the history, understanding how we relate to that history, and understanding how all that shapes the way we do things now. What I try to talk about as a non-Indigenous person is to encourage other non-Indigenous people to really become aware of that stuff and become an ally, and to take steps to understanding that and to try and really make, create a community where English doesn't dominate, and where a certain way of life doesn't dominate over traditional way of life.”

Morrison and Mike both say that there’s a massively diverse music scene at home, but there’s barely any media coverage or awareness beyond the North. The result: a tightly knit music scene that had no choice but to support its own, both musicians and fans alike.

“It was very kind of challenging and really difficult to hear ‘no’ all the time,” Morrison says, recalling all of the rejection he and his peers have accumulated over the years. “But there's this silver lining to it because again we're forced to do it ourselves and kind of figure out how to do it. We're building the Nunavut music scene in that sense, because we're making lots of contacts and really trying to build up the resources in Nunavut.”

Mike also points out that the colonization of Nunavut happened much later than the rest of Canada. What’s happened to her home in her and her father’s lifetimes is to live and bear witness to monumental change. The founding of Aakuluk Music is to be part of that change.

“To see Nunavut become what it is now, it has changed tremendously over 50 to 60 years,” Mike says. “Nunavut's first record label — you know, from living on the land to this digital age that we live in now, it's fascinating to me. I think there's a lot of good things that are gonna happen in Nunavut over the next decades.”

Hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner