Celtic music heartland is alive with sound of throat singing

Transplanted Bay Chimo native introduces Nova Scotians to traditional Inuit songs



Nova Scotia, the musical home of Ashley MacIsaac, Rita McNeil and all things Celtic, has never heard anything quite like Angela Hovak Johnston’s recording session.

Johnston, a transplanted native of Bay Chimo, spent the spring in a recording studio in Lunnenberg, N.S. and emerged with an 11-track album with six songs in Inuinnaqtun, three throat singing songs and two English songs.

“A lot of people in Nova Scotia have never heard throat singing before,” said Johnston. “They are so appreciative because they don’t know a lot about Inuit culture.”

Her first CD, Nipiga (My Voice), was released on June 29 and she has been making the rounds of the Nova Scotia summer festival circuit, performing her songs and educating audiences with bits of Inuit legends and history.

Born in Bay Chimo in 1975, Johnston went to school in Cambridge Bay, and was living in Kugluktuk with her husband and their young family when she made the tough decision to leave the Arctic and move to her husband’s hometown of Bridgewater, N.S.

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Although she has come to enjoy her new home, living outside of the Arctic without any real Inuit community has caused some concern for Johnston.

As she started to lose her fluency in Inuinnaqtun, she worried that her three young sons would be deprived of that connection with their past. “It’s hard to teach it to my boys now that we aren’t living in the Arctic,” she said.

She was driven to make an album in her mother tongue to record the language for her boys and to keep the dialect, spoken only by a small number of people, alive.

Johnston has performed her traditional songs at multi-cultural festivals, a powwow on National Aboriginal Day and in a variety of venues with a wide-range of musicians.

“There are so many musicians in Nova Scotia,” she said. ‘ It gets you in the groove.” Although there are lots of musicians around, Johnston has yet to see another Inuit performer in the province.

It was her unique talents that helped get Johnston into a recording studio for the first time. A string band called Drumlin, consisting of a cello, violin and guitar played by three talented boys between the ages of seven and sixteen, invited Johnston to collaborate with them and sing on their album.

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After that Johnston was bitten by the studio bug and started looking for a place to record an album of her own. She was looking to work with someone familiar with Inuit language and throat singing, but was worried that would be hard to find. “I didn’t want someone who was just going to enhance my voice,” said Johnston.

Then she caught word of James Shaw, owner of Red Fish Audio, a recording studio located inside an old opera house, who had spent years in the Arctic working at the correctional facility in Iqaluit. After they met, Johnston had no doubts that he was the right person to help her make her record.

After another great recording experience, Johnston was thrilled and proud to have produced a CD of her own songs, many of which are very personal to her. Since writing her first song seven years ago, after the birth of her first son, Johnston has used song writing not only as a form of cultural preservation but also as a kind of personal therapy.

A track on the album called “Travel” is a song written for her parents about the sadness she experienced when she moved away from the Arctic. Another track, called “Don’t,” was a way for her to deal with her experiences of sexual abuse while growing up, and to help others with similar experiences.

“That song is for people who have been abused,” she said. “I wanted to get the message out that it’s not ok and we don’t have to accept abuse.”

Beyond her own personal battles, Johnston wants to inspire people through her music, particularly aboriginal women. “As aboriginal women we have a voice and we shouldn’t be afraid to use it,” she said.

Since recording her own CD, Johnston has been less afraid of using her own voice, particularly on stage. “I love performing. I love the feedback I get,” she said, admitting that a few years ago this wasn’t the case when any criticism would have sent her running to lock herself in her room.

“I feel like I’m a whole person now,” she said. “I’ve learned that if you fall you just get up again.”

Nipiga is available in Nova Scotia, as well as at Arctic Closet in Cambridge Bay, the Aurora Gallery in Yellowknife and on Johnston’s website at www.angelahovak.com.

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