There are several forms and varieties of Inuit music. Some, like throatsinging, originated within the culture, while others, like accordion music, square dancing, and gospel, were introduced by whalers, traders, and missionaries. Over the years, certain types of song and dance practiced by early Inuit have disappeared. Today, most Inuit enjoy all forms of Western music. Square dancing – learned from the whalers – remains popular and is performed at many community gatherings. Some Inuit have formed bands, and a few, like Susan Aglukark and Lucie Idlout have become well-known throughout North America. Recent years have witnessed a revival of Katajjaq or throatsinging, in part due to the worldwide acclaim of Tanya Tagaq, an Inuk vocalist from Ikaluktuutiak (Cambridge Bay), who has collaborated with Bjork, Kronos Quartet, and the Galacian Celtic group, Lau.
Ayaya singing, performed at drum dances, is a personal story told in the form of a song. David Owingayak of Arviat in Nunavut provides his own classification of contemporary Inuit songs: “I see three different categories of Inuit music. There is one type of traditional music, pisinnquat, which is songs derived from stories, and songs written by Inuit artists ... Pisinnquat are actually funny stories and fun to listen to. They can be about people and animals. Another type of traditional music, known as pisiit, tells of things that have happened in the past. With contemporary music, or imngiutit, the artist writes songs to be sung with or without a guitar ...Qilautit, or drums, are important in this category. They are used exclusively for drum dances and pisiit” (Dewar 1994:28).
Although performed less frequently than in the past, throatsinging is still popular. Performed almost exclusively by women, it requires years of training and practice to achieve its characteristic “sound.” Two women stand face to face at close proximity; the voice of one establishes the beat, and the voice of the other, the melody. Imitating nature – the sound of a river or a sea-gull for instance – singers make guttural, breathy, and humming noises from their chests and throats. Many women learned the art of throatsinging from their mothers or grandmothers. Usually, girls begin singing together when they are very young.
The Mackenzie Delta region is known for a style of drumdancing that includes several drummers, each carrying a drum made of skin (or nylon) stretched across a large, round, wooden frame. Holding the drum by the handle, the drummer strikes the frame of the drum with a wand. Each strike swings the drum, creating the main movement or beat of the dance. Behind the dancers there is often a group of singers. In front of the singers and drummers there may be one or more dancers.
Abel Tingmiak of Inuvik, Northwest Territories says: “Our dances [Western Arctic] are different from the Eastern Arctic, since we have dancers without drums that all move together. Everybody has the song being sung in mind. Everybody is like one person moving to one song” (Serkoak et al., 1997:100).
In the Central and Eastern Arctics, a single drummer performs, sometimes accompanied by ayaya singers. The audience waits for the first drummer to step forward; if there are no volunteers, singers summon a drummer to the floor by singing a drummer’s personal song (pisiit). There are no prescribed or official movements in this dance; each drummer has his own style. Usually, the dance begins with a slow tempo, building in intensity. Only one drum is used, each man taking his turn. Once begun, dancing often continues long into the night.
In the past, drumdancing took place at almost all gatherings to celebrate a successful hunt or to honour someone who had died. Drumdancing was also performed as part of shamanic rituals. Dances were usually held in large, specially constructed igloos – qaqqiqs – made to accommodate a large gathering of people. In some areas, the dance that was all but forgotten is now being revived.
As Uriash Puqiqnak of Gjoa Haven, Nunavut says: “In our culture, happiness is important. Drumdancing is a way of celebrating, of being happy, of bringing good spirits to the people. If you are having a good time, good hunting will come through. When you are happy, you have to move – you can’t stay still” (Dewar 1994:27).
1994 “You Had to Be There,” Inuit Art Quarterly (IAQ), vol. 9, no. 1 (spring)
Serkoak, David, Ann Meekitjuk Hanson, and Peter Ernerk
1998 “Inuit Music,” The 1998 Nunavut Handbook, Marion Soublière ed. Iqaluit: Nortext Multimedia Inc.
Brought to you by the Inuit Art Foundation