Learning, growing, jamming: A Nunavut music renaissance
“The Nunavut music industry is very small. We’re isolated by geography but we’re also isolated by not having resources”
What do you get when you feed caribou stew and deep-fried bannock to four generations of Nunavut musicians and mix in some visiting movers and shakers from the southern music industry under a power-outing Iqaluit snowstorm?
You get the inaugural Nunavut Music Week.
Aakuluk Music, Nunavut’s first and only record label, hosted a three-day conference Sept. 28 through Sept. 30 that temporarily turned the Francophone Centre into a think tank for the territory’s Inuktitut music scene.
The event brought delegates from southern media outlets, as well as publicists and managers, to the Nunavut capital—all so that budding Nunavut artists could benefit from high-calibre advice and direction for career advancement, without having to fly to Toronto.
“Normally we have to go down and book meetings. It’s nice to have those kinds of people in one room together, to come to us,” Josh Qaumariaq, front man for Iqaluit’s Arctic soul band The Trade-Offs, told Nunatsiaq News.
The band signed on with Aakuluk Music this summer, a few months after performing in Vancouver for National Aboriginal Day.
“It’s a really great networking opportunity to meet people from the music industry,” Trade-Offs bassist and singer Jeff Maurice said of the conference. “The Nunavut music industry is very small. We’re isolated by geography but we’re also isolated by not having resources.”
While conference panels covered trade tricks—such as how to self-market and how much to pay your agent—troubleshooting talks also identified a few industry challenges that are more acute for Nunavut artists.
One such choke point mentioned by several musicians—from long-time Igloolik rocker James Ungalaq of Northern Haze, who said he has been “broke and inspired for 32 years,” to up-and-comers like Pangnirtung’s Riit Mike—was a scarcity of money for arts in the territory.
Maurice said territorial funding opportunities are limited and sometimes come with restrictions. “Guidelines are very narrow in terms of how you can spend,” he said.
And Rankin Inlet’s Kathleen Ivaluarjuk Merritt, who goes by IVA, pointed out during a Sept. 29 panel discussion that those small pots of money set aside by the Government of Nunavut for arts funding are often pursued by hamlets as well, to kick-start their own cultural projects.
This lends itself to a “take turns” mentality where, if an artist gets a grant one year they likely won’t get it the next because there’s only so much to go around, Merritt said. A model like that, she said, leaves little room for artistic growth.
All that considered, “It’s an exciting time to be in the North,” Maurice said. “I think Canadians are genuinely interested in the North and there has been a lot of focus on northern issues. People want to know, ‘Who are the artists up there? Who are the musicians. What kind of culture is there?’”
And culture is what Nunavut Music Week was all about.
“The goal is to develop the industry in a way that artists can succeed while singing in Inuktitut and not be forced to sing in English. That’s a lot of the pressure that The Jerry Cans felt and, I think, that the other bands are feeling. We are prioritizing Inuktitut music,” Aakuluk Music’s Andrew Morrison told Nunatsiaq News Sept. 29.
“People are grateful, they’re hungry for more music,” said Arctic Bay singer-songwriter Jordan Muckpa, who released his first album, Maanna, in 2016.
That’s because access to Inuktitut music hasn’t always been easy, said Chris Coleman, recording engineer for Iqaluit’s Nuvu Studios.
“There’s a real appetite here in the Arctic to hear their own music and in their own language,” he said, and that appetite creates a niche market for Nunavut.
After tackling the hard topics in their daytime sessions, Music Week representatives invited the rest of the city out Friday night to celebrate what they do best—play music.
That celebration happened over a beer-soaked evening at the Iqaluit Legion with live performances featuring Riit backed by The Jerry Cans along with Northern Haze and The Trade-Offs.
Sadly, the season’s first blizzard cancelled both a Saturday night Legion concert by The Jerry Cans and a long-planned Alianait concert featuring award-winning Cambridge Bay-born artist Tanya Tagaq.
But a few rearranged flights saw the show go on, Oct. 1, at Inuksuk High School, marking the first time in more than a decade that Tagaq has performed in her home territory.
“It’s not traditional, it’s contemporary,” she told concert-goers prior to a theatrical performance where she was joined by violinist Jesse Zubot and Greenlandic dancer Laakkuluk Williamson-Bathory, who lives in Iqaluit.
Veteran Toronto Star music writer Ben Rayner, who was last in Iqaluit a decade ago when the White Stripes came through, said artists such as Tagaq are helping to bring Inuit music into the national scene.
But homegrown efforts that lift up young or rural artists, such as Nunavut Music Week, are worth more than a thousand cold emails to any publicist, he said.
“The Jerry Cans are doing some pretty cool things now as well,” Rayner said, noting the group’s vision of “bringing everybody up with them.”
“What they are doing is really generous, they’re trying to share their success with their friends and contemporaries.”