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The Tunes of Pow-Wow

Until the arrival of Europeans and Americans, followed by the advent of musical recording technologies, Inuit music was traditionally only used in spiritual ceremonies, often to ask the spirits for good luck in hunting, as well as in simple lullabies for children. Unlike most cultures, traditional Inuit music is remarkable for its stoic lack of work songs and love songs. They work well with vocal tunes and use the combination of different symphonies, that are unique to each tribe. Later, Inuit musical traditions were modified with the arrival of foreign sailors, especially those from Scotland.


Traditional Inuit music is based around drums used in dance music and storytelling, plus a vocal style called ‘katajjaq’ in Inuktitut, Inuit throat-singing, which has become popular in Canada and abroad. The technical characteristics of Inuit music include story singing, complex rhythmic organization, relatively small melodic range averaging about a sixth, prominence of major thirds and minor seconds melodically, with undulating movement.


Two Inuit artists practicing 'Katajjaq'

'Katajjaq’ is a type of traditional competitive song, considered a game, usually held between two women. It is one of the world’s few examples of overtone singing, a very unique method of producing sounds vocally. When competing, two women stand face-to-face and sing using a complex method of following each other, so that one voice hits a strong accent while the other hits a weak one, melding their voices into a nearly indistinguishable single sound. They repeat brief motifs at staggered intervals, often imitating natural sounds, like those of geese, caribou or other wildlife, until one runs out of breath, trips over her tongue, or begins laughing — at which point the contest is concluded. These practices came to be over a period of centuries and have existed since, they are still relevant as vocal games, which are unique to the Inuit tribe. Additionally, there are more than a thousand Inuit artists, at present who are honing Katajjaq professionally, while keeping close to their ancestral roots.

While they adorn solid significance to their vocal arts, the tribe is equally as invested in instruments. The main Inuit percussion instrument is the wooden frame drum called the ‘qilaut’ that is made from bending narrow strips of wood into a circular frame with a handle protruding. Originally, caribou skin was stretched across the frame. Nowadays synthetic membranes are used. These drums can reach three feet in diameter but are usually smaller. It is struck on the edge of the rim with a ‘qatuk,’ a wooden stick, wand or beater. The sound is a combination of the percussive whack on the wood and the resulting deep vibrations from the stretched membrane.

An Inuit woman playing a 'Qilaut'

The Inuit art of throat-singing, like Inuit drum dancing, has been enjoyed since time immemorial yet as other musical traditions, instruments and sounds arrived in Nunavut, they have been combined and merged with the expressive musical forms of the native people. Many Inuit enjoy the accordion and fiddle sounds introduced to them by whalers and fur traders. Acoustic and electric guitars are now played everywhere in the territory, producing folk, country, pop and rock music in Nunavut with a distinctly northern artistic flair. Sounding as if it were perhaps invented specifically for another modern musical form adored by youth, the Inuktitut language is brilliantly suited for hip hop lyrics! At specific times of the year — such as when the sun returns to end the long, dark winter night, at the beginning of springtime and when summer finally arrives — communities all across Nunavut stage celebrations and games. These events include traditional Inuit performing arts, like storytelling, throat-singing and drum dancing, while also staging traditional Inuit games, which are athletic competitions of strength, agility, dexterity and stamina based on critical skills honed for excellence in hunting and arctic survival. These festive events often feature live music, dancing, theatrical performances and circus acts, plus they include communal feasts of traditional Inuit foods that are prepared for one and all to enjoy. In its truest sense, they are the heart and soul of the tribe combined together, to form a mosaic of all that they are, The tunes of Pow-Wow.

References :

1. Inuit Culture/Art (2019, June 14) | Kataqjjaq Throat Singing


2. BBC Travel (2021, April 15) | A revival of Indigenous throat singing

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