Saturday’s Endangered Music: The Inuit

More than perhaps any other culture in the world, the Inuit peoples are on the absolute front line of our changing climate. The Arctic regions are heating up far faster than the rest of the planet, triggering cultural changes which are overwhelming on all levels. The United States’ first climate change refugees are probably going to be the few hundred people who live in Kivalina, a remote village in Northwest Alaska. According to the US Army Corps of Engineers, their home will be completely uninhabitable in a decade or so, thanks to rising seas and eroding lands.

But it’s not just the physical impacts of having your home, your community, and your land melting away under you. Those temperature increases which industrialized civilization’s greenhouse emissions have catalyzed have their effects on the existential condition of Inuit people as well. We who live in urban civilizations have little more than a remote and whispering ancestral memory of having our lives interwoven with those of the land we live on — but for the Inuit, that connectivity is real and profound…and losing it through no fault of their own is unsurprisingly making them far more likely to be profoundly depressed.

Ashlee Cunsolo Willcox is a scientist working in Nunatsiavut on the Inuit Mental Health Adaptation to Climate Change project. She notes that the rapid decrease in sea ice triggers very deep emotional responses:

“…a sense of grief, mourning, anger, frustration, sadness, and many people said they also felt very depressed about not being able to get out there on the land,” Cunsolo Willox said.

“People describe themselves as land people, as people of the snow and the ice, and would say that going out on the land and hunting and trapping and fishing [is] just as much part of their life as breathing,” Cunsolo Willox said.

And that’s not all. Climate change also triggers problems lower down. Inuit populations are getting sicker, more frequently — due to disease-carrying pathogens that have found their way into their water supplies:

“In the north, a lot of [Inuit] communities prefer to drink brook water instead of treated tap water. It’s just a preference,” explained study lead author Sherilee Harper, a Vanier Canada graduate scholar in epidemiology at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. “Also, when they’re out on the land and hunting or fishing, they don’t have access to tap water, so they drink brook water.”


“These societies are like crystal balls for understanding what could happen when these changes start materializing over the next few decades down south, as they surely will,” said James Ford of McGill University, an expert in indigenous adaptation to climate change who was not involved in the study.

“Scientists often talk about how if global temperature increases by 4 degrees Celsius [7°F], there will be catastrophic climate change effects, Ford said, “but where I work in the Arctic, we’ve already seen that 4-degree Celsius change.”


These lands don’t offer much in the way of raw materials for instruments. The most common are frame drums (which need relatively little wood) and various idiophones: rattles, sticks, etc. But the lack of instruments has resulted in an extraordinary effulgence of vocal music of a sort encountered nowhere else — although Siberian and Tuvan singing clearly has much in common. Wolves, walruses, and bears are given imitative tribute, as are the sounds of the land and the environment itself (snowstorms, the Aurora borealis, ice break-up in spring).

Perhaps the most commonly encountered example of Inuit music is the “throat-singing competition” in which two vocalists face off and sing in rapid alternation with one another.

Karin and Kathy Kettler, are Canadian throat-singing sisters who together are known as Nukariik, carry on the traditions of the elders from their mothers’ village in Kangiqsualujjuaq, Nunavik, which is located in northern Quebec.

There is a rich heritage of group drumming and dancing:

Promo video for the Ulukhaktok Western Drummers and Dancers. Shot in and around Ulukhaktok, Northwest Territories, September 2012. Produced by the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation and Black Fly Studios.

These vocal traditions are sustained in their original forms, and transformed through the work of innovators like Tumivut, who recontextualize throat singing with electronics and contemporary beats. (go and like their facebook page!).

Cynthia Pitsiulak and Charlotte Qamaniq-Mason are members of Tumivut. Here they demonstrate a traditional throat-singing “competition”:

And here’s a clip from the group’s debut cd:

Perhaps the most adventurous of these sonic explorers is Tanya Tagaq, originally from Nunavut, who has collaborated with jazz and electronic musicians in creating long improvisational soundscapes that exploit the full range of her remarkable voice.

“Backed by a drummer and a violist, Tagaq unleashed a torrent of bizarre sounds. During the fifty-minute performance, she howled like a wolf, barked like a dog, cried like a baby, shrieked like a siren, whispered inaudibly, grunted like a caveman, and groaned like someone in the throes of an orgasm. It was music born of the boundless Arctic land, belted out in the hot crowded city, and New Yorkers didn’t know what to make of it. Some in the audience were starry-eyed, others were aghast, and I noticed more than one person get up to leave. By the end, Tagaq was panting and exhausted, her black dress sopped in sweat.


“Tagaq didn’t start throat singing until her mid-twenties, when she went south for school. Her mother, determined she not forget her heritage, sent her Inuit throat singing tapes in the mail. Tagaq began performing, first alone in the shower, then for crowds at concerts and festivals across Canada. In the summer of 2000, two men saw her sing at the Great Northern Arts Festival in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, and passed tapes of the performance on to Björk. The following year, Tagaq joined the Icelandic rock star on her Vespertine tour and took throat singing, or at least her brand of it, to the world. Inuit throat singing traditionalists were livid. Not only was this not throat singing, they claimed—which inherently requires two women—it was pornography. One Cambridge Bay woman called Tagaq a “devil singer.”


The region has had contact with outsiders for several centuries; visiting whalers introduced their songs and instruments, including violins and accordions, which accompanied curiously morphed versions of the original European dances:

“There are more than 25,000 Inuit living in Northern Canada, in Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, and Nunuvik in Northern Quebec. Inuit music was primarily based on drumming and throat singing but after contact with European and American whalers, the music has included fiddles and accordions. In the 1800’s, Scottish and American whalers hunting blowhead whales traded their tunes, dances, and instruments with the native Inuit and the musical traditions were passed down through the families. They danced squares, round dances, polkas, and waltzes to the sound of the accordion. Dorothy Harley Eber, in her book “When the Whalers Were up North” tells the story of Inuit whale hunters leaving up to 30 of their accordions in a shed for safekeeping while they went hunting. They would choose several from the pile when they came back to play for a dance then leave them back in the shed for the next group.”


Rap music is a natural progression for a culture so steeped in percussive vocal expression:

Inuit Rap

Inuit beatboxing with Nelson Tagoona

“But the hottest new Nunavut rapper of all is Tagoona, who is eighteen years old and hails from a small community in the central Arctic called Baker Lake. The music in the Toonik Tyme video is known as “throat boxing,” a style Tagoona invented. It’s a mix between traditional Inuit throat singing and beatboxing, a U.S.-born form of vocal percussion in which rappers use their voices to generate beats and musical sounds.”


And rock music is of course essentially universal, offering (in its combination of spectacle, catharsis and do-it-yourself simplicity) an access point to a global musica franca.

This band is called Naneruaq; they’re from Maniitsoq, Greenland; the song is called ‘Naluara’ (I don’t know).

Inuit rock music

A useful resource on Inuit music and language from very traditional to very contemporary is HERE.

One thought on “Saturday’s Endangered Music: The Inuit

  1. I saw Tanya Tagaq perform way back in ’97 or ’98 when she accompanied a group of Inuit artisans and performers (there were also storytellers, drummers and dancers, soapstone carvers and Inuksuit makers) on a visit to St. Lawrence U. She was spellbinding. I’ve never experienced such an emotionally generous and transporting performance. She turned her homesickness (she was attending college in the city) into an evocation of her distant home. I’ve wanted to get up to Nunavut ever since. Now the climate gives my desire to visit that extraordinary culture added urgency.

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