Contemporary and traditional Inuit music from Canada’s Arctic region can be found in Inuit Inngiusingit: A Collection of Inuit Choral Music. This collection includes Susan Aglukark’s Inuit pop classics, Paul K. Irksuk’s Inuit folk music, traditional Inuit a-ja-ja songs, and throat songs. But did you know that the first text on Inuit choral music was not published until 2021?
In 2021, a music teacher in Nunavut, Mary Piercey-Lewis, in Inuksuk Highschool in Iqaluit with a PhD in ethnomusicology, published the first Inuit choral music in the Inuktitut language.
How Unique is Inuit Music
Drums are used in dance, music, and storytelling in traditional Inuit music, as well as a vocal style, known as katajjaq in Inuktut and throat singing in English. This music has gained popularity both in Canada and abroad. Inuit music is distinguished by story singing, complex rhythmic organization, and a relatively narrow melodic range.
Traditionally, Inuit had no word for what English-speaking people call music. In Inuktut, the closest word is ni pi, which includes music, speech sounds, wild animals, natural forces, and noise. Unlike most cultures, traditional Inuit music is notable for the absence of work songs and love songs.
Inuit music was traditionally only used in spiritual ceremonies, often to ask the spirits for good luck in hunting, and simple lullabies for children, before the arrival of Europeans and Americans and the advent of music recording technologies. With the arrival of foreign sailors, particularly those from Scotland, Inuit musical traditions were altered. The Inuit quickly learned to play the accordion and fiddle, as well as dance jigs and reels, as these whalers’ musical instruments. (Source: Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada)
How Does Inuit Throat Singing Go?
Inuit throat singing is a traditional competitive song, considered a game, usually held between two women. It is one of the world’s few examples of overtone singing, a unique method of producing sounds vocally. When competing, two women sing face-to-face using a complex method of following each other so that one voice hits a strong accent while the other hits a weak one, melding their voices into a nearly indistinguishable single sound. They repeat brief motifs at staggered intervals, often imitating natural sounds such as geese, caribou, or other wildlife, until one of them runs out of breath, trips over her tongue, or starts laughing. At this point, the contest is over. The Inuit are the only people who play this vocal game.
The main Inuit percussion instrument is the qilaut, a wooden frame drum made by bending narrow strips of wood into a circular frame with a protruding handle. Caribou skin was originally stretched across the frame, but synthetic membranes are now more common. These drums can reach a diameter of one meter but are usually much smaller. The qilaut is struck on the rim with a qatuk, a wooden stick, wand, or beater. The sound is created by a combination of the percussive whack on the wood and the deep vibrations produced by the stretched membrane.
Acoustic and electric guitars are now used throughout the territory to create folk, country, pop, and rock music with a distinctly northern artistic flair. The Inuktitut language is brilliantly suited for hip-hop lyrics, sounding as if it were perhaps invented specifically for another modern musical form adored by youth. (Source: Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada)
Image from Cbc.Ca