Reviving a cultural heritage
Throat singing is distinctively Inuit and a musical genre all its own. In 2014, Quebec recognized throat singing as its first example of intangible cultural heritage—something you can only hear.
Throat singing is a traditional game involving two women. The whole point of the game is to make the other person laugh. “Throat singing was a form of entertainment especially during harsh times, or when they couldn’t go out,” says Evie Mark, a throat singer from Ivujivik, Nunavik, who teaches at Nunavik Sivunitsavut, the college program in Montreal for students from Nunavik. Throat singing was often sung during ceremonies, or festivities, or gatherings, just to see who would outlast the other.”
Unlike regular singing, throat singing usually does not have words; it has sounds. Throat songs are a marvel to listeners because of their deep, throaty, breathy, raspy, and seemingly nonhuman sounds. These are made by rhythmic inhalations and exhalations of the singer’s breath that resonate in their throat. The sounds are taken from the Arctic environment, such as sled runners, a polar bear, raven, geese. Each song is different every time it is performed because each person’s voice is their own unique instrument, plus the sound order and/or tempo are changed up each time.
Two throat singers stand face-to-face and hold each other’s forearms. One is the leader who sets the rhythm, pace, and sound; the other follows half a second later, repeating the same sound, going with the rhythm. Although the two women make the same sound, because one happens a fraction after the first, it creates a totally different sound. The leader tries to throw the follower off by adding new sounds and the follower has to make the same sounds. Either singer can also speed up and slow down—all in an attempt to make the other person laugh.
“A lot of people think the hardest part of learning throat singing might be making the sounds, but that is the easy part,” says Heidi Langille, an Ottawa urban Inuk whose family is from Nunatsiavut. “The hardest part is working with a partner and figuring out the timing. Learning when to jump in or trusting your partner to do what you expect them to do.”
“Seventeen years ago,” she says, “Lynda and I could count the number of throat singers we knew on one hand. Now we’ve got so many different throat singers out there. It’s fantastic.”
Lynda Brown (Langille’s singing partner), who lives in Ottawa with family ties to Pangnirtung, Nunavut, encourages Inuit to learn to throat sing because, “It was almost lost, almost completely wiped out. Being able to carry it on to the next generation is important to me. As soon as I learned, I was teaching and paying it back to other people.”
About 15 years ago, Brown travelled with a four-woman performance troupe, Siqiniup Qilauta, to Nunatsiavut (Northern Labrador), and taught youth groups how to throat sing and drum dance. For some of the young people, it was the first time they had heard throat singing. The art form had been lost, forbidden by Moravian missionaries who had set up posts in Labrador in the late 1700s to trade with, and Christianize, the Inuit. No traditional Nunatsiavut songs exist today, but the youth who learned from Lynda and Siqiniup Qilauta went on to teach other youth, reviving the lost tradition there.
Throat singing was banned all across the North, but enough women passed along their knowledge, so it didn’t die out. It remained exceptionally strong in Nunavik. The Elders managed to ignore the church’s attempt to silence throat singing and taught the next generations.
There are now dozens of throat singers across Nunavut and Inuvialuit, as well as in southern cities: Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto. Throat singing has become mainstream for young Inuit performers.
Search YouTube for Inuit throat singing and pages of videos come up. PIQSIQ, a duo from Yellowknife, has gained popularity for traditional throat singing, as well as their own contemporary compositions. Nancy Mike’s throat singing is an integral part of Iqaluit Indie rock band Jerry Cans’ music. Tanya Tagaq, a solo throat singer from Iqaluktuuttiaq (Cambridge Bay, Nunavut), has won two Juno awards, 2015 and 2017.
This is a modern resurgence of an ancient art that was disappearing but is now being revitalized and reinvented.
As there is a tradition of passing along, or sharing songs, sounds, and tips with other singers across Inuit Nunangat, singers often don’t know what region the songs originate from.
“The origins of the songs are old, older than the naming of the communities,” says Mark. “A lot of the songs were created before Inuit settled in villages.”
There are some recognizable regional differences, though.
Songs from Nunavik, such as Qimmiruluapik – Poor Little Puppy, have more guttural sounds. Whereas Naglingniq – Love Song, which comes from Baker Lake in Nunavut, has a very soft sound, more like humming. Another identifiable one is Qikturiaq – Mosquito, which originated in the Northwest Territories and was made popular by PIQSIQ.
“Mosquito is the only throat song where the leader and follower do two completely different sounds. For every other throat song, they do the same sound,” says Brown. “With Mosquito, the leader makes one sound, and the follower does a different one.”
“There are no words in Mosquito or Love Song; one of the many sounds in Poor Little Puppy we say, ‘qimmiluarpik.’ We don’t learn it by writing it down, as it would be difficult to note guttural or soft sounds, but through hearing it and practicing,” says Brown.
Langille explains how it works.
“With singing, you use your diaphragm and vocal cords. With throat singing, you are using more than that, you’re using your vocal cords, false vocal cords, diaphragm and projecting.”
False vocal cords are what create the deep sonorous tones. They are a tissue in the throat that help close the larynx when swallowing. False vocal cords are not normally used in speaking or regular singing but can be made to vibrate and produce a low, rough sound.
“The number one question usually is, ‘Does it hurt?’” says Brown. “Absolutely, it does hurt, yes. You have to train your throat… I remember learning that first guttural sound, vibrating way at the back. I remember thinking, ‘Okay, that’s a challenge.’ It goes away with practice, though.”
For Mark, learning to throat sing was a way to connect with her Nunavimmiut heritage.
“I had a hunger to learn the Inuit language, to regain my language, to learn the songs, to learn a lot about the land. When I was a kid, throat singing really intrigued me when I heard it. And I thought, ‘When I grow up, I’m going to become a throat singer,’” says Mark.
She did and has taken her talents overseas, singing in Wales, France, the United States, and across Canada. She has performed with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra in Quebec, and the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa, and Esprit Orchestra in Toronto, Ontario.
Brown and Langille have also travelled widely, performing in southern Canada, as well as introducing throat singing to tourists on Arctic cruises with Adventure Canada and to youth on Students on Ice expeditions. They did a 30-second bit as part of the winter Olympics for Chinese television, and, at the other extreme, throat sang for four minutes on singer-songwriter David Newland’s album Northbound.
The three women agree. Throat singing is a fun way to share their culture with everybody— Inuit and non-Inuit.
Watch Lynda Brown and Heidi Langille demonstrate how to throat sing and talk about the stories behind each song. (Winterlude 2008).
Season Osborne is the author of In the Shadow of the Pole: An Early History of Arctic Expeditions, 1871-1912. She lives and writes in Ottawa, Ontario.