Let’s just get this out of the way…
Musically speaking, Inuit throat singing—or katajjaq—is 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 there—we 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.
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, and—gasp—electric light.
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