[This is an excerpt from my book, Dancing Through History: In Search of the Stories that Define Canada. Lois has just returned from London where she performed throat singing as part of Her Majesty The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Pageant at Windsor Castle, along with Artcirq, who is also featured in the book. Lois will be receiving the Queen's Diamond Jubilee medal on June 15th, 2012. Congratulations!!]
It is the first time I have heard throat singing live. Maria Illungiayok and Lois Suluk-Locke take the stage, somewhat shyly [at the Alianait Arts Festival], after Dettrick finishes his drum dancing performance. Both of their faces shine with pleasure and they look out at the audience playfully. Maria’s amauti, a parka designed to hold a baby in the back pouch, is black with a white border around it and along the sleeves, white fringe hanging from the penguin-like back and around to the front; Lois’ is white with yellow and blue horizontal lines and diamond-shaped designs on the hood. Each of them wears a thin headband with strips of coloured fabric dangling down the sides of their faces.
Linking their forearms together, they stand face to face preparing for competition. Maria starts the song with a low, guttural sound from the bottom of her throat, an imitation of an animal or a sound that evokes something specific in the story they’re telling, and Lois repeats the sound, alternating back and forth and sometimes overlapping their voices as the pace picks up.
The women sway back and forth from foot to foot, shifting their weight in a kind of dance as they hold onto a microphone in the middle of them so that the whole tent can hear their song. Each woman’s pitch and sound is different and their guttural voices, alternating with deep inhales as they gather air, creates a melody that sounds like a rushing river, a dog team running or even a saw cutting back and forth, depending on the song.
As Maria tries to trick Lois by changing the tempo and picking up speed, the rhythm becomes intense and their breathing gets heavier. And then, without warning, they both start giggling hysterically and let go of each other, the audience clapping their approval.
In a throat singing workshop the next day, I learn that Maria and Lois are from the community of Arviat, the southernmost settlement in Nunavut on the Hudson Bay near the Manitoba border, and they have shared throat singing at festivals in Dublin, Mexico and Santa Fe, sometimes being the first Inuuk the country has ever seen.
Throat singing, like drum dancing, is as old as anyone can remember. “Throat singing was a form of chanting in worship,” Lois explains to the group. “Today we throat sing for entertainment, good competition and use it as an identity of being an Inuk woman… We also do some traditional singing and each song is the composer’s experience. They’re usually experiences of their hunting trip or a form of celebration and each person can give that song to their namesake. So some songs may be really old… We don’t have anything written down of how old the songs are. They might have changed just a little bit, but these songs could be at least a few thousand years old.”
Traditionally, two women would stand almost mouth to mouth, but today it’s more common for throat singers to just clasp forearms and face each other. Elders may do things more traditionally, but it all depends. I was told that elders sound very different than those from younger generations, “like they’re saying words” as they sing. Lois says that the elders sound like old maids. “I can’t wait to sound like an old maid! The throat singing would be much more rich, I think.”
As with drum dancing, throat singing was not allowed once Christianity was introduced. “In the 40s or 50s, the church tried to ban the throat singing,” says Lois quietly. “Because that happened, my mother does not know how to throat sing, but my grandmother does. And now we’re claiming it back and saying it wasn’t right for someone to tell us not to do what we use as entertainment, chanting, worship and good competition.”
Now, throat singing is being carried on by women like Maria and Lois, as well as being re-defined by solo artists like Tanya Tagaq, who is mixing traditional sounds with modern beats, instruments and English vocals. (Tanya has also worked with artists like Icelandic Bjork and the Kronos Quartet to create stunning work.)
Competitions, almost always between women, are like the last one standing: whoever can last the longest in a song without breaking the rhythm (usually by laughing), is the winner. And with the breath, probably the most important part of singing, forming an almost panting sound on the inhale and an animal-like growl on the exhale, combined with the close connection to the other woman, laughing is inevitable. When I try during the workshop, not only can I not produce a rich growl from my throat muscles (it is more like Kermit the Frog), but I am making myself dizzy and giddy by breathing so quickly.
Even with the tiring action of using the throat so directly, Maria and Lois demonstrate many songs for us (sometimes with the accompaniment of drummers who are hanging around), from the most basic song to one about being happy to have woken up to another day after a successful hunt; from a puppy trying to keep up with a dog team and a river that rushes and swells, to a saw (that sounds exactly like a saw!) and ones called “The Love Song” and “The Mosquito.”
The sensuality of the songs, because the singing comes from so deep within the stomach and lungs, then the throat and breath, is primal; I can feel it resonating in my own stomach and through my body, the intimacy created by the singers drawing listeners deep into their melodies.
As much as the songs don’t change (Lois likens it to “trying to re-word the Happy Birthday song, you can’t do it”), and they vary as the dialects of Inuktitut do across Nunavut, there are composers and young people taking an interest in bringing back the old traditions, with their own generational influence.
One volunteer at the festival who was at the throat singing workshop told us that once, while she was teaching “The Mosquito” song to a group in Ottawa, she decided to split them into two groups, one group learning the lead sound in one room, the other learning the following sound in another room. Because there are two distinct parts to this song (in most songs, the person following must repeat the same sound the leader makes, which can lead to a cat and mouse chase as the lead tries to throw the other woman off), each group learned their different “part.” The two groups were then brought into the same room and sang the song together. She said it was crazy. And completely contemporary.
This is an excerpt from the book, Dancing Through History: In Search of the Stories that Define Canada by Lori Henry.