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Nunavut throat-singers Cynthia Pitsiulak and Annie Aningmiuq from Pangnirtung on stage in Hamburg, Germany.

By Jürgen Boden

Internationally acclaimed harpist Rüdiger Oppermann’s Klangwelten 2011 (Festival of World Music), billed as a musical exploration “between the Archaic and Utopia” is a captivating three-hour world music journey that travels across the strikingly unique musical sights and sounds of six different cultures.

This year, the 25th Klangwelten 2011 was performed in 40 different cities and towns: in concert halls, theatres, churches, arts and culture centres, school halls, and in folklore clubs throughout Germany and in Austria. The tour’s demanding schedule required the ensemble to travel from one locale to the next on a near-daily basis for evening performances before packed halls, most of which were sold out.

The Hamburg concert, December 6, given before an audience of about 500 in the large Johannis Church, began with an introduction by Rüdiger Oppermann about the group’s members, their instruments and singing techniques. Once the actual performances began, the audience warmed immediately to the talented artists, prompting exuberant whistles and impromptu rounds of applause that only served to elevate their individual and collective performances to even higher levels of musicianship and artistry

The joint performance of harpists Rüdiger Oppermann and Park Stickney, who played contemporary and jazz music on their two harps, was truly remarkable. They synchronized perfectly, building their throat-song to a full throttle crescendo of symphonic sound tempered throughout by softer, gentler undulations.

But it was one of the most highly anticipated featured acts of the evening, Nunavut’s Katajaq Duo, Cynthia Pitsiulak from Kimmirut and Annie Aningmiuq who hails from Pangnirtung, that may have stolen the show. They were first to appear dressed in traditional Inuit attire standing very closely facing each other with barely enough space for a microphone between them. Their performance introduced not only Inuit culture to a curious audience, but also demonstrated what Arctic throat singing was all about.

Once Cynthia and Annie slowly began to inhale and exhale their breaths, picking up speed and building crescendo and suspense in doing so, the audience listened in rapt attention as they began to sway to the rhythm of their songs, adding gasps to their quick and heavy breathing, creating highly unique visuals and sounds that European eyes and ears were seldom attuned to.

The rising tones of their throat-singing seemed to intertwine, becoming transformative, taking both singers and the audience into the animal realm and spiritual world to hear caribou calls, wolf howls, polar bear hisses, bird songs and spirit voices.

Once Cynthia’s and Annie’s performance ended, a moment of awed silence filled the church… then the applause came… and came, as if not wanting to end, and in fact not ending until the evening’s moderator intervened to introduce the next scheduled musicians.

At the end of Part I of the concert, all of the evening performers came together on stage. Central Asia throat-singer, Enkh Jargal joined Cynthia and Annie. The addition of his deepvoiced and overtone-swinging throat-singing to that of the two Nunavut women created a very unusual, melodic and thrilling sound and song experience that had never before been created or heard beyond this concert, leaving the audience agog in wonderment and appreciation.

After a break of about 30 minutes, Part II of the concert again featured the various artists, this time wearing traditional garb, playing and singing in groups of two. The ensemble performance of the Indonesian drummers from Java, Agus and Wahyu, plus the tabla drummer from India, proved highly exciting and engaging — building a tremulous wave of sound throughout the venue that sent the church windows, figurettes, statues, paintings and audience a-tremble.

When the concert came to an end, close to 11:30 p.m., all the musicians again mounted the stage together, drumming, singing, trumpeting, harp playing, and fiddling. Again, Cynthia and Annie were a great attraction; their throat singing along with the other voices and instruments created an exciting, colourful background of sight and sound. So far from home, yet they had once more given Europe an exclusive glimpse into their culture and their souls with their Inuit song.

Inuqaatigisiaqta — let us be good people for each other!

The Origin of Throat-singing
Though my wife Elke and I had visited Baffin Island, the Kivalliq and High Arctic several times in the past and heard throat-singing on TV at that time, we wanted to know more.

Asking our Nunavummiut friend, Ann Meekitjuk Hanson, about the history and background of this special type of throat singing, she answered with the following:

“Throat-singing was a girl’s game; now it has become an entertainment. We used to throat-sing imitating the sounds we knew: birds, wind, animals or anything new. The touching is just to be near each other or for support. The movements are there to create or to follow the rhythm of one’s song.

We sing to last longer than our partner. We laugh at the end because we are secretly trying to get her to stop first so we can be the winner! It is a game to see who lasts longer. When I was broadcasting for CBC in the 1960s and 1970s, I interviewed two women and asked them to throat-sing. They were shy at first. Then I told them that we were losing our game, the little girls throatsinging songs which we don’t hear anymore — then they finally agreed. We had so much fun remembering the times when we were living on the land and creating the sounds with our throats and breath.

Then I aired the songs. There were mixed reactions in the beginning, but then people were so pleased to hear the old songs again, the laughter and fun. There was only one caller saying she/he didn’t want to hear these old things because ‘we don’t need it anymore.’ Fortunately I didn’t listen to that caller and we continued to air throat-singing songs. Today, it is so popular at events, not only in Nunavut but also outside of the North. So, we nearly lost throat-singing, if it weren’t for those two women who brought it back to life on air for everyone to hear.”

Story contributor, Jürgen Boden, is the co-owner and publisher of Alouette Verlag, Germany. He is also the editor of the book Canada North of Sixty featuring essays by northern writers and personalities such as Ann Meekitjuk Hanson and pictures by northern photographers.

Author’s Note: Gifted documentary filmmaker Hendrik John filmed the Hamburg concert, as he had the other concert locations. He accompanied Rüdiger Oppermann on various trips to many countries where Oppermann sought out new talent and musical styles unknown to Europeans.

Immediately following the Hamburg concert, Hendrik rushed to edit his documentary about Klangwelten so that at the last concert in Karlsruhe on December 20 the preview version of the film could be publicly shown to mark the 25th anniversary of the concert series. It is hoped that his final version of the film will air on German TV in 2012.