Kattajjatiit — from generation to generation
Minnie and Madeleine Allakariallak retain the purity of Inuit throat-singing.
IQALUIT — In the beginning was the sound now emanating from Minnie Allakariallak’s throat.
Huh-mmh, huh-mmh, huh-mmh, she throat-sings as her tiny, pretty face crinkles with mirth.
Seemingly oblivious to her surroundings, the bliss of throat-singing music Minnie’s known for more than 80 years shines in her smile displaying small, perfect teeth.
The music she makes has soothed fussy babies, da led audiences at folk festivals, and influenced a few generations of kattajjatiit — including her granddaughter Madeleine and some of Madeleine’s peers — many of whom are awaiting eagerly to make history in Puvirnituq, Nunavik this September at the world’s first throat-singers’ gathering.
Huh-mmh, huh-mmh, huh-mmm, Minnie continues while perched atop a bed in her room at the Iqaluit Elders’ Centre. Beside her sits Madeleine, one half of the popular musical duo Tudjat, and Madeleine’s daughter Savannah, aged three.
Madeleine’s facial expression is soft as she listens to her life-long mentor and one of her biggest fans create sounds that evoke fond childhood memories for both women, and serve as an indirect lesson for Savannah.
“I was four when she gave me a particular sound to practice,” Madeleine says.
Huh-mmh, huh-mmh, huh-mmh.
“She said that’s the sound she gave me,” Madeleine translates for her Inuktitut-speaking grandmother.
Madeleine is one of 60 kattajjatiit attending the gathering hosted by Nunavik’s Avataq Cultural Institute.
The two women and one young girl sitting together on the bed symbolize everything the gathering’s organizers want to discuss, accomplish, and learn at the gathering.
Minnie, 85, is one of the Nunavimmiut who was moved forcibly by the Canadian government from Inukjuak, Nunavik to what’s now known as Resolute Bay in the early 1950s.
Interestingly, Inukjuak is situated near Puvirnituq, whose kattajjatiit are regarded by Inuit and non-Inuit as some of the world’s best.
Credit for kattajjaq’s revival in the 1960s is often attributed to Isa Koperqualuk, a Purvirnituq elder known as a great teacher and advocate of kattajjaq.
Minnie began throat-singing in her early girlhood, and remembers throat-singing as a competitive game of mimicking bird and animal sounds that she played with other girls.
To this day, Minnie still maintains this view of kattajjaq.
“She likes the idea of the gathering,” Madeleine translates for her. “It’s a great, fun way to be together with other people.
“The best way to do it, even if you don’t come from the same region, is to practice with each other.”
Having fun is one aim of the gathering, but organizers and kattajjatiit like Madeleine also want to address serious issues.
Issues like who owns kattajjait (throat-songs), and how to maintain kattajjaq’s musical integrity in a fickle world where all things “indigenous” are now perceived as hip and transgressive by trendsetters in the mainstream.
According to Madeleine, her grandmother doesn’t understand the importance of such issues because, unlike the kattajjatiit of her granddaughter’s generation, Minnie hasn’t traveled and performed extensively throughout the North, Canada, and the world.
“I’ve traveled around Nunavik and Nunavut in the different regions, and had exposure and the chance to hear other forms of throat-singing whereas Grandma hasn’t,” Madeleine explains. “So, the way I see it is different.
For Madeleine, maintaining and protecting kattajjaq’s integrity is an important issues that must be dealt with by kattajjatiit at the gathering.
“After we came out with our first CD, a lot of little girls would come up to me,” she recalls. “They wanted me to teach them throat-singing because it was part of their culture that they wanted to keep going.”
Unfortunately, she says, some of these younger Inuit now promote themselves as professional kattajjatiit without having paid their dues to kattajjatiit who came before them or learning kattajjaq’s intricate subleties.
“I found that a lot of young people were calling themselves throat-singers even though they’d learned only the basic sounds, and not the sanguagusiit — sanguagusiit are the musical transitions in a throat-song,” Madeleine explains.
Such practices run counter to Madeleine and Minnie’s ideas of how younger kattajjatiit should learn from older, more experienced kattajjatiit.
“I heard that young women were traveling to other countries and promoting throat-singing,” she says. “It was a little uncomfortable for me, but at the same time I supported their desire to learn.
“Two of my aunts who are probably going to the gathering are afraid of young performers calling themselves throat-singers and not giving their audiences what throat-singing is,” she says. “So, they’re anxious to discuss this at the gathering.”
The role of elders and their valuable knowledge is another issue that Madeleine says must be addressed in September, especially by the younger generation, who have used that knowledge to attain commercial success.
“The older women in Cape Dorset and the older women in northern Québec, they know the sounds, they know where the sounds come from, they know the exact sound you’re supposed to make, they know the sanguagusiit,” Madeleine says. “I can understand how they get frustrated with the younger throat-singers because we’re traveling around, making lots of money when they feel we don’t know the all the songs or the sanguagusiit.
“My cousin — who I throat-sing with — called me crying from northern Québec,” Madeleine remembers. “She said ‘I went up to this lady and asked her to teach me how to throat-sing and the woman told me that she wanted to be paid.’
“My cousin was offended, and told the woman, ‘You’re an elder. Isn’t it your responsibility to take this art form and pass it onto to my generation?’ And the elder asked, ‘Well, how much money are you going to make off of it when you go to Europe?’”