Article MT091

Inuit Throat-Singing


For those who know about throat-singing, the expression commonly refers to a type of singing mainly used in Tibet, Mongolia, Tuva (situated North-West of Mongolia) and surrounding regions.  This particular type of singing differs from normal singing in that a singer can produce two or more notes simultaneously or unusual textures/timbres through special vocalization and resonance of the throat.  Throat-singing is found as well in other parts of the world.  For example, among the Xosa of South Africa, as well as among few other Siberian peoples, such as the Chukchi from the far north of Russia or the Ainu of Northern Japan.

One other place where throat-sing has been an important cultural heritage for quite a long time is among the Inuit of North America.  They developed a particular type of throat-singing that is different from its Mongolian and Tuvan counterparts, one that do not produce these extra notes.  [Two short sound clips will be added to this article in the near future - Ed.]  Interestingly, a few East Siberian peoples have also developed a throat-singing more akin to the Inuit type than the Mongolian one (more specifically, the Ainu of Northern Japan).

In the following article, I would like to introduce you to the Inuit throat-singing.  A few CDs have been released (specially by the French labels Auvidis and Ocora, and few other Canadian labels), and a small number of papers (ethnomusicological or otherwise) have been published on the subject; yet the Inuit throat-singing remains almost totally unknown.  I will first briefly introduce the Inuit, who they are, where and how they live.  This will be followed by a presentation of their throat-singing, relying on the ethnomusicological literature and the scholarly understanding of it.  I will end with an interview with a wonderful young Inuit throat-singer from the north of the province Quebec, who is dedicated to promote and make this particular type of throat-singing known to the world.

The Inuit

The Inuit live in the most northerly parts of North America, from Alaska all the way to Greenland.  Some are also found in the Chukotsk Peninsula in northeast Siberia.  It is believed that the Inuit are of Mongolian origin.  It has been suggested that they crossed over through the Bering straight somewhere around 12,000 years ago, after the last ice age, and that they dispersed all over the barren frozen lands of North America.  It is estimated that the Inuit population in this vast area is somewhere around 100,000 people.

They are still known by the name of Eskimos, which was the name given to them by the Algonquin American Indian people.  The term means eaters of raw flesh.  The Algonquin occupied most of Canada, right south of the region occupied by the Inuit.  Today, they ask to be called the Inuit, the plural form of the word inuk, which means person in their language, which is called the inuktituk.  They have developed their own distinctive way of life and their own culture, living almost exclusively by fishing and hunting.

Their first official contact with the Western world took place in the middle of the 18th century, and regular and enforced contacts from the beginning of the 20th century.  These contacts with Western civilization had, like in all other cultures around the world, major influences; in particular through Christianization.  They unfortunately lost a large part of their customs and way of life because of Western civilization's inforced encroachment.  Today, no one follows the traditional life of living in igloos; and much of Inuit traditions can only be found in museums.  In April 2000, after years of negotiations, the territory of Nunavut was officially created, which gives to the Inuit and other native peoples a relative right of self-government, though not an independent or self-reliant one.  Their new territory covers about half of the Northwest Territory.

Inuit Throat-Singing

In the vast Inuit Artic land we find two types of singing: regular songs, generally accompanied by hand drums and dancing; and throat-singing, generally done by two women facing each other (and nowadays by a few men, too).  Some ethnomusicologists have been suggesting that by being able to maintain their language, the inuktituk, this has also helped the Inuit maintaining that particular tradition; although in many regions, throat-singing was forbidden by Christian priests for many decades.  The religious ban has now been lifted, and it has been resurfacing in the last 20 to 30 years.

The main regions where throat-singing is found in northern Canada are in North of the province of Quebec - where it is called katajjaq, on Baffin island - called pirkusirtuk, and in Nunavut - called nipaquhiit (Nattiez, 1983).  In Alaska, throat-singing has completely disappeared while the Inuit of Greenland never developed it.  Following the growing interest in this type of singing, there appear to be other communities all around Canada that are bringing it back.  In September 2001, there was, for the first time, a Throat Singing Conference, which took place in Puvernituk, Nunavut, where one could hear different types of throat-singing from different regions of Canada.

There was a similar type of throat-singing to be found among the Ainu of the island of Hokkaido in the north of Japan, though with some differences.  Called the rekkukara, it has unfortunately completely disappeared.  The last person to sing it died in 1976.  What remains are only recordings done by NHK, Japan's national television, in the 1960s and '70s (Nattiez, 1983).

Inuit throat-singing is not singing per se.  Ethnomusicologists suggest that it should be viewed as vocal games or breathing games more than anything else.  Traditionally, they are considered 'games in which one makes noises', as the Inuit would say.  Because of the way they use the voice, the throat, deep breathy sounds, rhythms, as well as its similarity to Mongolian and Tuvan throat-singing, it is now called throat-singing.  It appears that the main reason why ethnomusicologists suggest to call them vocal games is that they do not use only the throat, they also use regular voice.  Traditionally, they are games the women employed during the long winter nights to entertain the children, while the men are away hunting (sometimes for up to a month or more).  As already mentioned, they are generally done by two persons, but sometimes we can find four or more performers singing together.

Inuit throat-singing is done the following way: two women face each other; they may be standing or crouching down; one is leading, while the other responds; the leader produces a short rhythmic motif, that she repeats with a short silent gap in-between, while the other is rhythmically filling in the gaps.  The game is such that both singers try to show their vocal abilities in competition, by exchanging these vocal motives.  The first to run out of breath or be unable to maintain the pace of the other singer will start to laugh or simply stop and will thus loose the game.  It generally last between one and three minutes.  The winner is the singer who beats the largest number of people.

Originally, the lips of the two women were almost touching, each one using the other's mouth cavity as a resonator1 .  Today, most singers stand straight, facing one another and holding each other's arms.  Sometimes they will do some kind dance movements while singing (e.g., balancing from right to left).  The sounds used include voiced sounds as well as unvoiced ones, both through inhalation or exhalation.  Because of this, singers develop a breathing technique, somewhat comparable to circular breathing used by some players of wind instruments.  In this way, they can go on for hours.

Words and meaningless syllables are used in the songs.  When words are used, no particular poetical meaning or regular meaning are assigned to them.  These words can simply be names of ancestors, a word or name meaningful at the time the games are taking place, or other common words.  The meaningless syllables generally portray sounds of nature or cries of animals or birds, or sounds of everyday life.  These songs are generally identified by the first word, meaningful or not, of the game.  In some regions, throat-songs may recount a story of some sort, though in Northern Quebec no stories are recounted, and may even include some improvisation.

An Interview with Evie Mark

For the past 10 years or so, there has been a revival of throat-singing among the Inuit, following a ban by priests for almost 100 years.  The interesting thing is that this revival is catching on as much among the younger generations as among the elders trying to bring back this old tradition.  There appears to be a need among the Inuit to express themselves through a tradition that is theirs and that expresses who they are.

I had the chance to meet with a 26 years old young Inuit throat-singer living in Montreal, but whose native village is situated right up in the north-west tip of the province of Quebec.  She is sharing her personal experience of Inuit throat-singing and what it means for her and her people.

My first question was one that so many people ask and to which she does not have much of an answer.  What is the history of Inuit throat-singing?

EM: A lot of non-Inuit people have asked the history of throat-singing, and have asked elders to find out where the throat-singing came from.  Our elders always say it came from the Inuit people, way before I was born, and that is the only information that they can provide.  I've heard this question so many times and I can never answer it, except that it's very old.  We've never had a written history; we have an oral history.  All this information has never been written down, except passed on orally from one generation to the next.  I do know that it is extremely old.  Older than my grandmother, older than my great-grandmother, older than my great-great-grandmother.  Because that's what my grandparents have told me, and that's what elders have told reporters and television people.  I also heard before from the elders, so I will just repeat what the elders have said, that men used to throat-sing, too.

How would you describe throat-singing?

EM: Throat-singing is a form of art, in a sense.  We don't have a word in Inuktituk for art, but it is an art in a sense because that it is a way of socializing, a way of getting together.  For 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 loose.  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.

When did you start to learn to throat-sing?

EM: I started throat singing when I was maybe 11 years old.  I was raised by my grand-father and my grand-mother, my Inuk side, all my life.  I was always different from my friends because I was half white, half Inuk.  My father is white and my mother is Inuk.  I was always picked on; "you little white person, you're so clumsy, you're not as good as us", stuff like that from my friends.  I wanted to prove to the society that I was as much Inuk as they were.  I needed to find a way to prove to them that I was good, as good as them.  I worked so hard at learning the Inuktituk language to prove to them that I was as Inuk as them.  But it was never good enough.

There were a lot of elders who would throat-sing.  It would amaze me.  How could these two old women create such unique kind of, like out of the world type, of sound?  How could they create such spiritual sound?  How can they do that?  I wanna learn to; so it became one of my goals, as a young girl.  And one day my Inuktituk teacher in school, a language teacher, was talking about throat-singing.  I was very scared to ask her if she could teach me, but I decided to ask anyway.  I went up to her and I said could you teach me how to throat-sing?  She said "No problem, come over any time."  Right after school, me and my best friend went to her house and she was surprised to see us.  She thought we would go there in a month or a in week, but surely not right after school.  And she taught us a very well-known song.  For the longest time, I kept practicing it on my own and I get an itchy throat or I would start coughing.  It was difficult.  I couldn't really comprehend what she was trying to teach me.  I kept trying to imitate her and I kept trying to sing like her but it never came out like her.

And then one day, it just clicked.  It is as if it was like a fishing hook, it's hooked.  It's hard to undo and not break it.  So, that's what it did, it just clicked.  It's as if I was like a fish and I was caught by the fishing hook, and it couldn't come out anymore.  It's just came.  It's as if it was in my blood.  I found what I was searching for.  It was there all along.  But then, for a long period of time, I didn't practice.  Maybe 10 years later, I started singing again and I discovered that didn't loose it.  It was still within me.  I couldn't undo it anymore from the day I learned it.  And the only thing I had to work on was perfecting it.  And the more I throat-sing, the more people got interested.  It was evolving, developing really fast.  I throat-sing for the first time in a public place at a multicultural week.  And from there my profession just started evolving.  And that's how I got into it.

The lady who taught me died from cancer when I was 18 and that was about the time I started performing as well.  And it was kind of weird for me.  If it hadn't been for her, I don't think I would have seen the French culture, the British culture, the Danish culture.  Because of that lady I've been able to travel a lot around the world, even to Greenland to share my throat-singing.  They don't throat sing in Greenland.  They have different ways.  They do a lot of drumming, and they do a lot of spiritual sessions.  Even though it is a very similar culture, people in Greenland don't throat-sing anymore.  I don't know when they lost it.

Do you always throat-sing with the same person?

EM: I throat-sing with a few people, but generally it is with Sarah Beaulne (see photo above).  Also, it is easier when both singers know each other.  There is always a period of adjustment to go through if you want to have a good performance with someone.

You mentioned me earlier that not so long ago there was an Inuit throat-singing festival.

EM: Yes.  It was in September 2001 in Puvernituk in Nunavik.  It was the first Throat-Singing Conference that ever happened on Inuit throat-singing.  It was very successful.  There were throat-singers from all ages, young people to the elders.  There was a lot of exchanges between everyone.  A lot of the elders were able to tell the younger singers "Don't add contemporary music to throat-singing."  The youth replied "No we've got to follow the change of life, while keeping our traditional throat singing."  The elders were much encouraged and pleased because young people showed that they wanted to learn from them and they were encouraged to keep going.  So, there was a lot of good communications.

What was the most fascinating for me was that we heard different throat-singing techniques from different parts of Canada.  It was amazing for me.  Some people were singing as if they were whispering.  To me, this singing was like a great boom, a great spirit that was whispering with a very strong voice, even though it sounded like whispering.  I was completely mesmerized.

Tell me more of your experience of the conference?

EM: When I was there, I decided to analyze what was happening around me, rather than being part of the meeting.  There was so many throat-singers all around Canada, female singers and there was maybe two or three men singers.  They were even a bit shy to make mistakes.  Some of them were scared to try because they would not be as good as the other throat singers.  Teenagers were listening to the elders and their way of singing.  I was a little bit scared too; what if I'm not a good throat-singer, what if I'm not as good as they want me to be?  So I was very hesitant to try to do it with them.

Generally, how do young Inuit people respond to your traditions?  As you know, in many places all around the world, because of Westernization, young people loose interest in their traditions and get much more interested in Western paraphernalia, most of the times at great costs for traditions.  How is it with your people?

EM: Inuit people have lost so much in a very little time.  What we lost, we really lost it.  We lost it to religion, we lost it to development, we lost to settling down the Western way.  And the youth like me never saw those changes, but my grandmother saw those changes, my mother saw those changes.  I was already born when those changes were already there, so for me it was normal.  What is pretty sad is that they also lost a lot of things that we don't know about.  But throat-singing is such a strong tradition that it probably didn't want to die.  It's probably not us who brought it to life again.  I think it was so strong that it didn't want to die.  So, I think it is coming back to us.  We are not going back to it.  It don't think it ever left us, I think we left it.  And since it's so unique, so strong, it never died. 

Young people are very interested in it because we are sort of going, to me, through an identity crisis.  I'm going through an identity crisis.  I don't really know who I am in a sense.  In the North, physically, you have so much space to move around, but your mind has very little space.  In the south, you have very little space to move around physically, but your mind has so much space.  Because you live in the north and it's so tight, the way of thinking is one way.  The kids see, specially through television, that there is not just one way, there is so many ways to live life.  That situation brings a lot of crisis to the youth, which is the reason why we have the highest suicide rate in Canada.  So, when they are introduced to something that will make their characters stronger, they go for it, like throat-singing.  They grab it, they're hungry for it.  And I guess I can say I was one of them.  It's like craving for something that will make your identity stronger.  It brought my attention to who I am, to my identity, to my culture.

When there is a change, there is always a stir; there is always an impact from that change.  So, the impact we're going through right now is horrendous.  We have diabetes, cancer, suicide, abuse.  This is the impact of all the changes that were brought about by religion, food, sugar ...  And it was brought to us in so very little time, and a lot of it was forced upon my grandparents.

And there is a thing called freedom of speech, freedom of voice, whatever; but they didn't have no such freedom.  Our people were told that shamanism was bad and it was devil's work.  They were treated as if they were savages.  They lost so much, and not by choice.  To me, I have a choice now because I grew up at a time when choice was around me.  I was told I have a choice, I have a life.  So, it was natural for me to always fight back with my voice.  And, I was taught to always stand up for myself in the white society and through my grandmother's way of upbringing.  For my grandmother to speak against a white person would not have been acceptable - not against - but to stand up for herself.

Does this mean that throat-singing is for you your way to stand up and speak your mind?

EM: For me, it's about identity, it's about who you are, where your environment is.  Throat-singing is strengthening my identity.  The same thing with the youth.  Even though I was raised by my grand-parents, like a pure Inuk, some people in my community put me down because I was half white.  I wanted to prove them wrong.  Now I realized I did not have anybody to prove to.  But then, when you're 9 years old, 10 years old, when you are being put down, it's easy to believe in them.

It seems that this fight to express your identity through your throat-singing goes much further than your own people?

EM: Although I am half white, I consider myself a true Inuk.  But my white background allows me to share my culture to non-Inuit societies, like very English societies, French societies.  I am able to say we are Inuit people, I am an Inuk person, this is where we come from.  So I am able to share knowledge; I am able to say this is who we are.  I have performed in many countries all over the world, in so many different places, hundred of schools, different stages, in Montreal, all across Canada, Greenland, England, Denmark, and other places.

I hope you will continue sharing that voice of yours, that singing, and that identity which they have helped you realise.

Suggested CDs of Inuit Throat-Singing

  1. Canada- Jeux vocaux des Inuit, Ocora, 1989, C559071.
  2. Canada Chants et jeux des Inuit, Auvidis/Unesco, 1976/1991, D8032.
  3. Musique des Inuit, La tradition des Eskimos du Cuivre, Auvidis/Unesco, 1983/1994, D 8053.



[1] In the Ainu rekkukara, both partners cover their mouth with their hands which touch each other. In this way, the hands were creating a kind of resonance box for the sounds. (Nattiez, 1983, shows a picture of two Ainu women in rekkukara position.)

Bruno Deschênes - 1.3.02

Article MT091

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