• Alice Farkas

Thawing the ice: how throat singing still tunes the Inuit people to their ancient culture

Eva Kaukai and Manon Chamberland practice the Inuk art of throat singing in their small village of Kangirsuk, Quebec, their mesmerising voices carrying through the four seasons of the Arctic land. In this short film KATATJATUUK KANGIRSUMI (Throat Singing in Kangirsuk), produced by Wapikoni Mobile, an intervention, training and creative studio for Indigenous youth, sound and video is used to express reality, culture and attachment to the land through throat singing.[1]

Watch KATATJATUUK KANGIRSUMI (Throat Singing in Kangirsuk):

It’s a practice that can sound unusual to Western ears, accustomed as we are to the rolling sounds of romantic Latin or Germanic phonics. The breathless, rasping noise are unlike any songs or melody we know of, but to the Inuit people of Northern Quebec, it is musical, a distinct part of their identity and one they hold great attachment to.

The Inuit live in the most northerly parts of North America, from Alaska to Siberia, through Canada and reaching all the way to Greenland. Believed to be of Mongolian origin, archaeologists suggest that the Inuit crossed the Bering Strait (the strait of Pacific ocean that joins North America and Russia), 12 thousand years ago, somewhere around the time of the last Ice Age, dispersing into the barren, frozen expanse of the Arctic, where today some 100,000 Inuit people live.

Image Source: Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada

Sadly, like many Indigenous groups, the Inuit people have faced much persecution. Perhaps the most scarring of which is the appellation ‘Eskimos’, anointed to them by Algonquin American Indian people[2]. Translated to the tongue of their time, the term literally means ‘eaters of flesh’, a narrative seen only too often, whereby First Nations people are rejected as the savage, barbaric outlaws in need of civilising.

When the 18th century arrived, it brought with it first official contact between Inuit people and the Western world. With invasion came prohibitions that lasted centuries, ritual and tradition, language and fable, all forbidden. And when liberation finally came, there was too little of the culture recorded for it all to be recovered. The blueprint of life had been buried with the last of a generation: neutering a society, halting it, preventing it from passing on. And yet one marvel did survive.

During the long (long, long) Winter nights of the Arctic tundra, throat singing was performed by the women as means of entertainment whilst the men were away hunting, sometimes for months at a time. Ethnomusicologists suggest that the practice is more accurately described as a vocal or breathing games, because of the way the voice, throat and breath are used in a sort of rhythm.[3]

Traditionally, Inuit throat singing is performed with two women facing one another; one is always leading and the other responds. When the leader begins, producing a short staccato motif, her partner follows, rhythmically filling in the gaps. The game is such that both singers try to show their vocal abilities in competition and the first to run out of breath or be unable to maintain the pace looses.

In an interview with Musical Traditions, experienced throat singer and filmmaker, Evie Mark explains her own understanding of the ancestral routes from which the practice came:

A lot of non-Inuit people have asked the history of throat singing, and have asked elders to find out where the throat singing came from. Our elders always say, “it came from the Inuit people, way before I was born”, and that is the only information that they can provide. We've never had a written history; we have an oral history. All this information has never been written down, except passed on orally from one generation to the next. I do know that it is extremely old; older than my grandmother, older than my great-grandmother, older than my great-great-grandmother.

And when asked on why she was drawn to the art of throat singing in the same interview, Evie answers:

A lot of elders would throat-sing. It would amaze me. How could these two old women create such unique, out-of-this-world sound? How could they create such spiritual sound? How can they do that? I wanted to learn too; so it became one of my goals. […] For the longest time, I kept practicing my own and I [would] get an itchy throat or start coughing. It was difficult. I couldn't really comprehend what [my teacher] was trying to teach me. And then one day, it just clicked. It is as if it was a fishing hook, it's hooked. It's as if it was in my blood. I found what I was searching for. It was there all along.

What a precious sentiment: it was always there. For centuries, people tried to erase a practice that represented a culture they forbade, too foreign to be accepted. So within the Inuit people the practice sat, and waited. And just like the earth under ice, when the ice thaws and the earth is exposed once more, it reveals itself, persevered until it’s needed again, given air to breath, to flourish. That’s what throat singing is for the Inuit people, it’s innate, within them, even if it takes some time to reconnect.

Who else but the Inuit people would beguile us with their ancient song? Somewhere between a human murmur and deep creaking of the ice beneath snow.

About the filmmakers and producer

Throat Singing in Kangirsuk (Katatjatuuk Kangirsumi) is a Canadian short documentary film, directed by and featuring Eva Kaukai and Manon Chamberland. Released in 2019 the film depicts Kaukai and Chamberland, two Inuit teenagers from Kangirsuk, Quebec, performing Inuit throat singing over scenes of the changing seasonal landscape in their community. The film premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Following the screening, the duo performed a live demonstration of throat singing, their first time ever performing music outside their own community.

Wapikoni Mobile

Wapikoni Mobile is an intervention, training and creative studio for Indigenous youth. Its mission is to amplify the voices of the Indigenous generation through film and music, to broadcast their work in Canada and abroad, and to act as a tool for professional development and social transformation. Since 2004, thousands of Wapikoni participants from 28 Nations have collaborated on more than 1,200 short films translated into multiple languages and winners of numerous awards and honours at national and international festivals.

[1] Source: http://www.wapikoni.ca/movies/katatjatuuk-kangirsumi-throat-singing-in-kangirsuk [2] Source: https://www.mustrad.org.uk/articles/inuit.htm [3] Source: https://www.mustrad.org.uk/articles/inuit.htm

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