Acclaimed American choir slammed for use of Inuit throat singing

“This is appropriation”

Inuit throat singing is passed from generation to generation of Inuit: here, Grade 5 and 6 students from Simon Alaittuq School throat sing in February 2018 at hearings held by the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Rankin Inlet. (File photo)

By Jane George

(Updated on Oct. 24, 3 p.m.)

An acclaimed choir from the United States says it wants to “support the important work of Indigenous resurgence.”

The statement issued late Tuesday evening by a vocal group called Roomful of Teeth, came after Tanya Tagaq, the award-winning Inuit performer, said they had no business integrating Inuit throat singing into their work—especially without attribution.

Now the group says it will, among other things, immediately “find opportunities to amplify and support performing artists” of throat singing, and other Indigenous musicians with whom they work, “in concrete and monetary ways.”

The Roomful of Teeth, which has been praised by the New Yorker magazine for “revolutionizing choral music,” widely performs a choral work called Partita for 8 Voices, composed by its mezzo-soprano Caroline Shaw.

But the group came under fire recently from Tagaq about their use of throat singing, or katajjaq, which comes from a long oral tradition among Inuit women, and can be heard in the composition. The piece has won two noteworthy awards: a 2012 Grammy award, as well as a 2013 Pulitzer prize.

“Over the past two weeks we have received multiple messages from members of the Inuit community explaining that our singing in some passages comprises katajjaq and is, therefore, offensive,” the group’s statement said.

“This was not our intent. In fact, we understood our music nested in these patterns to be sufficiently distinct from katajjaq  to constitute something new. But thanks to the many voices we have heard in the past two weeks we understand that we cannot be the arbiters of that distinction. We have work to do.”

Tagaq, backed by other Inuit women, had spoken up on social media to condemn the composition and Roomful of Teeth for its lack of recognition of Inuit and their throat-singing tradition.

On Twitter, where she has 35,000 followers, and on Instagram, where about 17,000 follow her, Tagaq tried to explain why the use of throat singing is wrong in the Partita for 8 Voices.

“This is appropriation. The third movement (at about 12 min.) is entirely based on Inuit throat singing. Specifically the Love Song,” Tagaq said on Twitter.

“No Inuit are named as composers, no Inuit hired. At least credit the Inuit who taught you as composers so they too can benefit and book more gigs to put food on the table.”

Tagaq said “taking from poor brown people and siphoning it into white throats and profiteering is wrong,” asking the group whether any of the appropriated cultures benefited financially from the various performances of the work.

In the Partita for 8 Voices, you can also hear Tuvan throat singing, from the Tuva Republic, which is part of the Russian Federation.

In a long thread of postings on Twitter, Tagaq said it’s important for the classical world to know that minorities have intellectual property rights, too—”because we are equals.”

The World Trade Organization defines intellectual property rights as “the rights given to persons over the creations of their minds.”

Tagaq said the best way to know whether it’s a good idea to include a culture’s intellectual property is to consult with the source of the “creative artifact.”

But the classical world can be very short-sighted on this, she said.

“There were times where I was invited as a collaborator and gave my own compositions vocally only to have my ideas shut down and my voice chopped up and not be credited as a composer,” she said.

The lengthy, and sometimes acrimonious, online discussion included tweets and Instagram posts deleted by the Roomful of Teeth, whose founder later came back online to defend its use of throat singing.

Founder Brad Wells said, “We compensate our teachers and we credit them on our website, in our programs and on our albums. I agree we can do more and better.”

The composer of Partita with 8 Voices, Caroline Shaw, said she, not Tagaq, should have “had to perform the emotional and intellectual labor of shining light on this issue” of giving appropriate credit.

“That work is my responsibility, and it is clear to me that I’ve neglected it,” she said.

In their statement issued on Tuesday, Oct. 22, Wells and Shaw said they would “immediately” do the following:

  • Credit their teachers and coaches more explicitly in public and in print.
  • Find opportunities to amplify and support performing artists of katajjaq , and other indigenous musicians with whom they work, “in concrete and monetary ways.”
  • Read aloud a source acknowledgment at the beginning of every Roomful of Teeth concert, “honouring explicitly named traditional cultures’ essential contributions to our music.”
  • “Be alert to and proactive” about these issues in all their future work.
  • Continue to listen to and learn from other members of the musical community, and take seriously concerns such as those raised recently.
  •  Explore new or alternative ways of performing their repertoire.

Other Nunavut performers and artists had also joined in the social media discussions about the use of Inuit throat singing, including Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, Alethea Arnaquq Baril and Kelly Fraser.

Tagaq and Fraser were among the Inuit artists who boycotted the 2019 Canadian Indigenous Music Awards over concerns around cultural appropriation.

Along with throat singer Kathleen Merritt (Iva), they said they wouldn’t participate in the awards until the organization that runs the event, the Manito Ahbee Festival, addressed the use of throat singing by a non-Inuk Cree, Cikwes, whose album was  nominated as best folk album at the awards.

“I have advocated for Inuit rights on my own for so long, and now a few of us Inuit women have gotten together and it feels good,” she said when contacted about the various posts about the contested choral work.

Tagaq said she plans to have an Inuit throat-singing choir for the stage version of her award-winning book, Split Tooth. The production will feature “actual factual real live Inuit,” she said.

In response to the Roomful of Teeth’s statement, Tagaq said on Twitter late Wednesday that it “smells of lip service and inaction.”

Tagaq remained critical about the Roomful of Teeth’s promise to acknowledge Inuit.

“So you will read aloud before every show that you are appropriating songs? Or will you just speak of Inuit being generous or give an anthropology class at the top of the show,” said Tagaq, who, like some other commenters online, suggested that future proceeds from Partita for 8 Voices could go to a charity that focuses on helping Inuit artists.

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(24) Comments:

  1. Posted by Here we go again on

    Cultural property doesn’t exist, it is a figment of your very vivid and easily offended imagination. If you still think it is theft, call the police. Let’s see what happens.

    • Posted by Elizabeth on

      Cultural respect exists though. But hey, white privilege doesn’t exist either, so, if you think you can step on a nation without getting a nail on your foot, think again.

      • Posted by Here we go again on

        Elizabeth, the choice to be offended by this, or understand it as ‘disrespectful’ resides entirely in the mind of the perceiver, no where else in the universe.
        Interesting that you’re trying to drag ‘white privilege’ into this, is that your forte? I’ll give it a pass.

    • Posted by Israel MacArthur on

      Absolutely, what complete drivel. Ideas and cultures constantly move, shift, are adopted, modified, and replaced.

      I’d better start seeing royalties paid by all of the Inuit square dancers, guitar players, piano players, and rap singers as a start.

      Don’t even get me started on what royalties would have to be paid for Christmas Carols and church hymns.

      Yeah, a completely foolish idea, isn’t it? Has about as much merit as the silliness in this article.

    • Posted by Israel MacArthur on

      Throat singing is not intellectual property in any reasonably understood meaning of the term. It doesn’t belong to anyone.

      There is no one who has been chosen to speak for Inuit on this matter.

      Would it be nice for artists to say “I was inspired by the work of so and so”? Absolutely. Is it required. Absolutely not. Throat singing is not intellectual property in any reasonably understood meaning of the term. It doesn’t belong to anyone.Is it Tagaq’s place to ‘tell’ anyone what do? Not in this world.

    • Posted by Steve L on

      Lets see, my Jewish doctor has a Christmas tree in his office, all my Ukrainian friends dress up on St. Patrick’s Day
      Of note: The original dress would have been skins but these girls are dressed in foreign fabric singing to a Chinese microphone.
      I think it is extremely narrow minded to claim ownership and performance rights to a perceived cultural property. Culture is an evolving process and has been pointed out in previous articles is not an exclusive characteristic of the Inuit.
      Take some time to watch the following video:
      p/s we’re from County Cork, with a stop to get in that dustup with Robert the Bruce, so I wear the Shamrock with pride.

  2. Posted by Relax on

    All Caps: “GIVE THE PEOPLE WHAT THEY DESERVE” – Cmon now… You can still sing country music even if you’re not from Tennessee. Get over it.

  3. Posted by too much on

    why can it not be just celebrated, all music once shared is out there for all too listen too. When Kelly Fraser interpretation of Rhianna’s Diamonds in the Sky was there slammed for intellectual property use? Was her music boycotted by her community?

    • Posted by Israel MacArthur on

      Exactly. Geeze, how many bagpipers have you met who are not of any sort of Celtic heritage.

      I’ve seen Celtic dancing in Korea of all places.

      They both better get their cheque books warmed up I guess.

    • Posted by Israel MacArthur on

      She did a good job at that too, didn’t she? I love that song. Great example though.

  4. Posted by Inuktitut uqarlavut on

    If non-Inuit want to amplify Inuit culture and voices through music, then, in addition to the recommendations identified in this article (resource sharing etc), they should use Inuktitut in their music.

    Using Inuktitut is (a) the best way to help Inuit culture survive, and (b) not cultural appropriation.

    Inuktitut uqarlavut imngirlavullu.

    • Posted by Israel MacArthur on

      It is not the responsibility of these performers to help Inuktitut to survive. That is the responsibility of speakers of the language, Nunavut parents, and, arguably, the government of Nunavut.

      Why would you expect foreigners to have any interest in preserving Inuktitut when most Canadians couldn’t even identify it as a regional Canadian language?

    • Posted by Not even on

      Why should they? There’s no obligation to conform to some contrived rule set that belies the reality the Inuit performers just want cash. That’s what this is, and it’s built on a zero sum fallacy that suggests that because non-inuit group A has made money in their performance, than Inuit Group A somehow loses monetarily. It’s not reality.

  5. Posted by John K on

    If I want to be a rapper who do I need to pay the royaltues too? I also had a hot dog for lunch… is there an office in Frankfurt or Vienna that I can send the checks to?

  6. Posted by No Moniker on

    Having followed the appropriation debate over the past year or so I’ve come to think the outrage is, in part, centered about brand protection, especially for Tanya.

    The attached narrative is that when ‘others’ throat sing Inuit somehow lose out; they lose income, they lose culture. These are articles of faith to be accepted like the Eucharist. But are they true? How do any of the Inuit artists listed in this piece lose out when ‘Room Full of Teeth’ groan out a few bars from their throat? I honestly don’t see how. Maybe someone could explain?

  7. Posted by David MacDougall on

    I have never heard of this group before, so I googled them.

    For anyone interested, this is the type of music they sing:The ensemble gathers annually at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA), where they have studied Tuvan throat singing, yodeling, belting, Inuit throat singing, Korean p’ansori, Georgian singing, Sardinian cantu a tenore, Hindustani music and Persian classical singing with some of the world’s top performers and teachers of the styles.

    And yes, there is only one group accusing them of cultural appropriation that I can see, after being together doing this for 10 years.

  8. Posted by Northern Inuit on

    was it appropriation when Kelly Fraser sang Diamonds in Inuktitut which was originally by Rihanna?

    maybe someone should teach Tanya how to throat sing with a partner before calling what she does throat singing. maybe the group is appropriating what she does. but not actual throat singing recognized by Inuit.

  9. Posted by Qiavraqtut on

    Check for throat singing art on youtube. It is beautiful sounding. Ancient, many languages, many cultures.

  10. Posted by Echo inside a Chamber on

    The originators of Inuit style throat singing are long gone, these modern stylists are not the originators and have no inherent or intrinsic right to payment for it.

  11. Posted by Cultural Wasteland on

    What a world we’d live in if there wasn’t cross-fertilization of art between cultures. No rock and roll, no country, no jazz, no hip-hop, no classical, no Celtic, none of it. I find it extremely hypocritical of artists who’ve made their names by borrowing aspects from other musical traditions, and this includes Tanya, who then complain when others borrow from theirs. If someone was pretending to be an artist from another culture, that’s a legitimate complaint. But it is not in this case. Tanya and other who complain about the issue while exploiting the exact same thing want to have it both ways. As an artist myself, albeit a visual one, I find that attitude offensive.

  12. Posted by Okay on

    Who owns throat singing? I am not inuit but I came from an African culture that has a form of throat singing in it’s spiritual worship.

  13. Posted by Makes no sense on

    She wants back pay from the non-Inuit people who use throat singing in their music, Who decides where that back pay would go if it were to be paid? Would it go to the throat singers? Or the Inuit people, because that’s what this all about right? Protecting our language and traditions, and not just trying to make a buck. I mean, shouldn’t the money go to the elders who passed down the traditions in the first place? How do they feel about Inuit people using capitalist ideals to sell our traditional values? Has anyone asked them if applying capitalist ideals to traditional values was appropriate? Also, people using an art form, no matter the colour of their skin, ensures the art form survives. You can either teach people how to do it properly with respect or sit on the sidelines criticizing and judging and making hateful remarks because of what we’ve went through in the past as a culture. Yes, we the Inuit have been through a lot and are still going through a lot, but acting like the people who told us not to throat sing in the past won’t help our culture thrive, it will only hinder us and separate us from other artists and art forms. Art is supposed to bring people together and these race-based arguments only keep people separated. Makes no sense to me as a musician, an artist and an Inuk.

  14. Posted by Northern Guy on

    So when Ms. Tagaq composes using standard major and minor chords does she acknowledge that these were developed by non Inuit and that she is appropriating another culture? When she wrote her novel did she acknowledge that the printed page was invented by a German and that she is appropriating the knowledge of another culture …. not likely. She needs to give it a rest already and stop trying to shake down actual artists who she thinks owe her something.


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