Traditional Inuit Thoat Singing and the Modern World Collide in This Astonishing Video

Let’s just get this out of the way…

Musi­cal­ly speak­ing, Inu­it throat singing—or kata­j­jaqis not going to be everyone’s cup of tea.

For all those who find this tra­di­tion­al form mes­mer­iz­ing, there are oth­ers who get antsy with no lyrics or eas­i­ly dis­cernible melody on which to hang their hat, or who expe­ri­ence the bleak sound of the Arc­tic wind cou­pled with the singers’ pre­lim­i­nary breath­ing as a hor­ror movie sound­track.

If, as a mem­ber of one of the lat­ter camps, you feel inclined to bail after a minute or so of Wapikoni Mobile’s Sun­dance-endorsed video above—you get it, it’s some­thing akin to Mon­go­lian or Tuvan throat-singing, it’s cir­cu­lar breath­ing, there’s a lot of pic­turesque snow up therewe beg you to recon­sid­er, on two counts.

1) In an era of auto­tuned “everyone’s‑a-star” per­fec­tion, Kata­j­jaq is a hearty hold-out, a com­mu­ni­ty-spir­it­ed singing game whose com­peti­tors seek nei­ther star­dom nor rich­es, but rather, to chal­lenge them­selves and amuse each oth­er with­out screens through­out the long win­ter nights.

Prac­ti­tion­er Evie Mark breaks it down thus­ly:

One very typ­i­cal exam­ple is when the hus­bands would go on hunt­ing trips.  The women would gath­er togeth­er when they have noth­ing to do, no more sewing to do, no more clean­ing to do, they would just have fun, and one of the ways of enter­tain­ing them­selves is throat-singing.

It goes like this. Two women face each oth­er very close­ly, and they would throat sing like this:

If I would be with my part­ner right now, I would say A, she would say A, I would say A, she would say A, I say C, she says C.  So she repeats after me.  It would be a sort of rolling of sounds.  And, once that hap­pens, you cre­ate a rhythm.  And the only way the rhythm would be bro­ken is when one of the two women starts laugh­ing or if one of them stops because she is tired.  It’s a kind of game.  We always say the first per­son to laugh or the first per­son to stop is the one to lose.  It’s noth­ing seri­ous.  Throat singing is way of hav­ing fun.  That’s the gen­er­al idea, it’s to have fun dur­ing gath­er­ings.  It is also a way to prove to your friends around you or your fam­i­ly that if you are a good throat-singer, you’re gonna win the game.

Throat-singing is a very accu­rate tech­nique in a sense that when you are singing fast, the per­son who is fol­low­ing the leader has to go in every lit­tle gap the leader leaves for her to fill in.  For instance, if I was to say 1 + 1 + 1 + 1, the ones being what I sing and the plus­es the gaps, she would go in-between the ones, singing on the plus­es.  Then, if I change my rhythm, this woman has to fol­low that change of rhythm and fill in the gaps of that new rhythm.  She has to be very accu­rate.  She has to have a very good ear and she has to fol­low visu­al­ly what I am doing.

Throat singing is not exact­ly easy on your diaphragm.  You are using a lot of your mus­cles in your diaphragm for breath­ing in and breath­ing out.  I have to find a space between sounds to breath in in order for me to throat-sing for 20 min­utes or more.  20 min­utes has been my max­i­mum length of time to throat-sing.  You have to focus on your lungs or your diaphragm.  If you throat-sing using main­ly breath­ing, you are gonna hyper­ven­ti­late, you’re gonna get dizzy and dam­age your throat.

2) The video, star­ring Eva Kaukai and Manon Cham­ber­land from Kan­gir­suk in north­ern Québec (pop­u­la­tion: 394), deflates con­ven­tion­al notions of tra­di­tion­al prac­tices as the prove­nance of some­where quaint, exot­ic, taxi­der­mied…

Begin­ning around the 90-sec­ond mark, the singers are joined by a drone that sur­veys the sur­round­ing area. View­ers get a glimpse of what their Arc­tic home­land looks like in the warm sea­son, as well as some hunters flay­ing their kill pri­or to load­ing it into a late mod­el pick up, pre­sum­ably bound for a build­ing in a whol­ly sub­ur­ban seem­ing neigh­bor­hood, com­plete with tele­phone poles, satel­lite dish­es, andgaspelec­tric light.

Via Aeon

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

The Hu, a New Break­through Band from Mon­go­lia, Plays Heavy Met­al with Tra­di­tion­al Folk Instru­ments and Throat Singing

An MRI Shows How a Singer Sings Two Tones at Once (With the Music of Mozart and Bri­an Eno)

How to Sing Two Notes At Once (aka Poly­phon­ic Over­tone Singing): Lessons from Singer Anna-Maria Hefele

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Join her in NYC for the new sea­son of her month­ly book-based vari­ety show, Necro­mancers of the Pub­lic Domain. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday


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  • Tony Gualtieri says:

    Chris­tos Hatzis did some inter­est­ing work incor­po­rat­ing Inu­it throat singing into some of his com­po­si­tions. There is a record­ing on CBC Records of this music that also includes a fas­ci­nat­ing audio doc­u­men­tary, “Foot­prints in New Snow.”

  • Dan says:

    “pre­sum­ably bound for a build­ing in a whol­ly sub­ur­ban seem­ing neigh­bor­hood, com­plete with tele­phone poles, satel­lite dish­es, and—gasp—electric light.”

    Why oh why go there? It’s no dif­fer­ent than think­ing that get­ting off the plane in Nairo­bi every­one will be in loin­cloths and car­ry­ing spears. There’s just no excuse.

    Great lit­tle film, but the fast cut­ting real­ly works against it IMHO. It’s amaz­ing, but it does­n’t need John Wick cut­ting. And the fact that you real­ly aren’t told where these peo­ple live (I’m from Que­bec, so I took a guess based on what I know about the style of Inu­it throat singing that it might be there); again, north­ern peo­ple aren’t gener­ic. Lives are spe­cif­ic, it’s THESE peo­ple, not gener­ic “eski­mos” that cre­at­ed this.

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