Music of the Inuit
Chase Clark & Rachel Darata
The Inuit people live in the northern reaches of North America from Alaska to Greenland. Inuits are often known as Eskimos, an Algonquin word meaning ‘eater of raw flesh’. Natives of the North American arctic reasonably consider being called Eskimos offensive, and prefer Inuit, ‘the people’ in the Inuktituk language. Historically the Inuits’ culture relied heavily on the hunting of arctic animals as their primary source of food and clothing suited for the harsh environment. The basic social structure of the Inuit people was a decentralized tribal organization of close knit family structures with leaders emerging for events such as whaling expeditions or trading opportunities. Women were left to cook, make clothing from animal skins, and raise children, while the men hunted and fished.
Traditional Inuit Instruments
Qilaut - Hoop drum beaten with a Qatuk mallet
Agiarut/Tautirut - “Eskimo Fiddle”, a spruce or birch resonator with sinew strings and a whalebone bow rosined with spruce sap. Debated whether or not it is indigenous.
In a land where the sun does not rise for half the year, great investment is made in filling the darkness with life and sound. The Inuit culture has songs for many aspects of life: feasting, hunting, story-telling, sarcasm, entertainment, weather, dancing, healing, scorn, and religious rituals. Many songs are accompanied by large hoop drums. Hoop drums are made of a wooden ring and handle which is covered by skin or cloth cinched down with string that lies in a groove on the ring. The drum is struck with a mallet not on the drumhead, but on the rim. Sometimes drumming is accompanied by dancing, rather than singing, in drumdances.
A video of hoop drumming can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sVRYpbZ3GSg
Inuit throat-singing is performed by two people facing towards one another. Traditionally the art of Inuit throat-singing was only done by women while the men were away hunting, but recently men have started practicing the traditional singing style. The singers synchronize their breathing to create vocal grunts and whooping sounds. The sounds can range from simple to complex, filling the air with a wide range of music pitches and sounds. Often Inuit throat-singers imitate natural sounds, from barking dogs to the sound of crowing ravens, natural sounds of wind and sea, even the northern lights. Inuit throat-singing culturally isn’t considered true singing but a vocal game; an aural staring contest used to pass spare time. Players sing repetitive sounds, one attempting to copy the other seamlessly as they change pattern and tone without warning. The face to face duel continues until one of the singers gives up in a giggling fit. A sampling of traditional throat-singing can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kbg6BltCr-g .
Throat-singing may originally have been connected to the shamanism religion of the Inuit, evoking fertility or good fortune for hunters. The sounds of nature may have appealed to the spirits of animals or elements to shape events in the favor of the village men on sealing trips. When the Inuit culture was brought into contact with Christianized western cultures, throat-singing was condemned as pagan and suppressed for generations, re-emerging only recently.
Inuit today enjoy much the same music as other North Americans, including rock, country, jazz, bluegrass, and gospel music. They also have a penchant for square dancing and can dance for an hour straight. This dancing is often accompanied by accordion or fiddle players. The fiddle entered the Inuit repertoire by way of sailors whaling off the Canadian coast and instruments were passed down through generations.