Throat Singing of the Artic Circle
by Bruno Deschênes
As is common among most of non-Western peoples, the Inuit of Alaska and Northern Canada too have lost over the years a large portion of their traditions. There is one tradition they have been able maintain: a typical type of throat-singing. We have been seeing lately a revival of this tradition among the younger generations, as a way to affirm their identity against the Western hegemony.
The term “throat-singing” generally refers to a particular type of singing found in Mongolia, Tuva, some peoples of the Ural region, Tibet, and few other places around the world (e.g., the Xosa of South Africa, the Chukchi of Russia’s far north, and others). Though similar in some ways because of its use of the throat to produce these particular sounds, the Inuit throat-singing greatly differs. It is a unique technique of singing that has not been influenced by the Mongolian technique, as far as is known. In fact, the Inuit technique can be found among few Siberian tribes, in particular among the Ainu of Northern Japan.
Inuit throat-singing is still a recent discovery among World music. A small number of CDs are available on the market and they can not be easily found. There even exists since 1994 an Inuit CD label, Inukshuk Records, based in the village of Inukjuak, Nunavik, in Northern Quebec. Inuit throat-singing has not caught the attention of World Music fans yet, as the one from Mongolia and Tuva did. Yet it is a unique tradition that deserves our respect.
For a long time, they have been known under the name of Eskimos, a name given to them by the Algonquin, a tribe that occupied a large portion of Canada, right south of the Arctic territories of the Inuit. The word “eskimo” means “eaters of raw flesh” from the fact that, because of their particular situation in the Arctic, they eat raw flesh. They prefer to be called “Inuit”, the plural form of the word “inuk”, which means person in their language, the inuktituk. They developed a distinctive way of life and culture, based on the climate of the far north, which is based mainly on fishing and hunting. They are known to live in “igloo”, their traditional snow house, a tradition that has entirely disappeared.
The first officially acknowledged contact with Westerners was around the middle of the 18th century. It will not be until the beginning of the 20th century that regular and encroaching contacts with the Western world started to take place, a form of contact from which they have lost most of their traditions, customs and way of lie, in particular through Christianization. In April of 2000, after long years of negotiations with the Canadian government, the Nunavut territory was officially created out of the eastern half of the Canadian Northwest Territories, giving to the Inuit and other native peoples of the region a relative right of self-government, though not a truly independent one.
Inuit throat-singing is found almost everywhere in the Inuit arctic lands, covering all of the northern part of North America. The main regions where it is found are in the North of the province of Quebec (where it is called katajjaq), on Baffin island (where it is called pirkusirtuk), and in Nunavut (where it is called nipaquhiit) (Nattiez, 1983). In Alaska, throat-singing has completely disappeared while the Inuit of Greenland never developed it, possibly due to their isolation from the rest of Canada. Now that there is a strong come back, other Inuit communities from all around Canada are either bringing back, or learning it.
Originally, Inuit throat-singing is not singing per se, but are vocal games. They are 'games in which one makes noises', as the Inuit would say. Because the throat produces deep breathy sounds and rhythms similar to Mongolian and Tuvan throat-singing. For this reason, the English expression “throat-singing” is also being used. Typically, they are games the women used to do to entertain the children during the long winter nights, while the men were away hunting (sometimes for up to a month or more). Though it is generally done by two women, during festivities or celebrations four or more persons can throat-sing together.
It is done in the following way: two women face each other; they may be standing or crouching down; one is leading, while the other responds; the leader produces a short rhythmic motif, that she repeats with a short silent gap in-between, while the other is rhythmically filling in the gaps. It is a sort of rolling of sounds created by the rhythmic exchange between the two singers. The game is such that both singers try to show their vocal abilities in a form of competition. The first to run out of breath or unable to maintain the pace of the other singer will start to laugh or simply stop and will thus loose the game. It generally last between one and three minutes. The winner of the evening is the singer who beats the largest number of people. Throat-singing is also a way for woman of having fun during the long winter nights, while waiting for the husbands gone hunting.
Originally, the lips of the two women were almost touching, each one using the other's mouth cavity as a resonator. Today, most singers stand straight, facing one another and holding each other's arms. Sometimes they will do some kind dance movements while singing (e.g., balancing from right to left). The sounds used include voiced sounds as well as unvoiced ones, both when inhaling and exhaling. Because of this, singers develop a breathing technique somewhat comparable to circular breathing used by some players of wind instruments. Some singers can go on for hours.
Words and meaningless syllables are used in the songs. When words are used, they are names of ancestors, the name of something meaningful at the time the games are taking place. Meaningless syllables generally portray sounds of nature or cries of animals or birds, or sounds of everyday life. These songs are generally identified by the first word, meaningful or not, of the game. In some regions, throat-songs may recount a story of some sort, though in Northern Quebec no stories are recounted, and may even include some improvisation.
For the past 10 or 15 years, we can notice a revival of throat-singing among the Inuit. The most interesting point to note about this revival is that it is catching on mostly among the younger generations alongside the elders, of course. There appears to be a need among the young Inuit to find heir own roots through a tradition they can call heir own, different from Western ideas. Going through an identity crisis, young Inuit found in it something to strengthen their identity.
There was even in September of 2001 an Inuit Throat-singing Conference in Puvernituk in Nunavik. It was the first Throat-Singing Conference of that kind. There were throat-singers from all ages, young people to the elders, exchanging a lot of ideas and techniques. The elders were much pleased to find out that young people showed an interest in it. One of the most fascinating thing was that different throat-singing techniques were heard, from different parts of Canada.
I wish to sincerely thank Evie Mark for her precious help in preparing this article. She is a young and talented Inuit throat-singer who has become an ambassador of her people, traveling all around the world giving lectures and performances.
© 2002-2004 Bruno Deschênes. Tous droits réservés.
Design de Kwok Minh Tran. Gravures japonaises de Shizuko Matsunaga.
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