SEASON TWO | EPISODE ELEVEN
LIFE IS TOO HARD WITHOUT MUSIC
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Amy Martin Welcome to Threshold, I'm Amy Martin, and we're doing things a little bit differently this time, and I'm pretty psyched about it. For the first time in Threshold history, I'm not going to be your narrator. I'm handing the reins to Nick Mott. He's been a key part of the Threshold team since the fall of 2016. He started out as an intern, and is now a producer on our show.
Nick did a solo reporting trip to Canada. That's way over in the far northeastern part of the country, pretty close to Greenland, and if you've never looked at a map of Canada, you should go check it out, it's pretty unique. There's no sharp northern boundary to the country, the North American continent just kind of disintegrates into a complex jumble of islands up there. I ended up flying over Arctic Canada a couple of times on my own reporting trips, and it's so beautiful from the air, with chunks of land tossed like puzzle pieces into the Arctic Ocean.
It's pretty amazing how long people have been living in Arctic Canada, and it's also amazing that they share a common root language with people all the way from western Alaska to Greenland. That's what he's going to focus on in this episode: language. It's a topic that seemed to come up everywhere we went in the Arctic. People were talking about language loss, and reclamation, and how the way we're taught to speak, changes how we think, and how we act. And that has big consequences for the Arctic.
So, I'll see you next time. Take it away, Nick.
Nick Mott I’m in a house in northeast Canada with five Inuit rock stars. They’re members of a band called Northern Haze, and they sing in the Inuit language here, which is called Inuktitut.
Welcome to Threshold, I'm Nick Mott, and I'm in a city called Iqaluit – It has about 8,000 people, and it's the capital city of Nunavut, which is the largest territory in Canada. 8,000 may not sound like a lot, but it’s a mega-city by Canadian Arctic standards.
There’s a recording studio in the house, and the guys are all nodding their heads, listening to the tracks they just laid down. Pillows and a comforter are stapled to the wall to soundproof the place. We're all standing around in our socks because in the Arctic, you leave your wet boots at the front door.
Nick Mott Can you tell me, who are your musical idols? Who got you inspired to play music?
James Ungalaq Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Jimi Hendrix.
Nick Mott This is James Ungalaq. He’s their lead singer.
James Ungalaq Yeah. They’re my inspirations, and my forefathers especially. My mother sang a lot, was very musical, very talented. I guess I have some blood in me.
Nick Mott In the 1980s Northern Haze was one of the biggest rock bands in this part of Canada, but they haven’t made a new studio album in more than 30 years. Until now.
James grew up in a time when the Canadian government was forcing Inuit people to shift away from a semi-nomadic life out on the tundra and into sedentary lifestyles.
When James was young, he moved from a tiny settlement where his family had a relatively traditional existence to a small city north of the Arctic Circle. He calls this experience “exile,” and it’s sort of the inverse of what we normally mean when we use that word: James was forced into a population center where he had to stay in one place.
James Ungalaq It was difficult, coming to a community with lots of other exiles from other places. Learning a whole new culture, English, and learning a whole new way of living and growing up.
Nick Mott While whalers, missionaries and explorers had had some presence in the Arctic for centuries, in the 1950s, the Canadian government got more actively involved in trying to control Inuit people. It was a collision between the world of what James calls “the south,” and his own world, in the north.
Canada created a system of residential schools, similar to what you’ve heard other Arctic people describe in previous episodes this season. Students were often pulled hundreds of miles from their parents, and at these schools, they weren’t allowed to speak their native language – and were often beaten for doing so. The connection to culture and language was severed for more than a generation, and these effects linger to this day. In 1949, only about 100 Inuit students were educated full-time in northern Canada. A decade later, more than a thousand kids were in residential schools.
It was a dark time for James, but he found some things he liked brought up from the south, too. Like rock music on the radio. He and his friends fell in love with Jimi Hendrix, and other rock and roll icons. So they taught themselves to play on makeshift instruments.
This was the birth of Northern Haze.
[MUSIC FROM NORTHERN HAZE]
Nick Mott In 1984, the band got word that the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, or CBC, would be putting on a contest. If Northern Haze won, they’d get to record an album.
The CBC’s the Canadian equivalent of NPR or the BBC, and this contest was a three-night event here in Iqaluit. James lives about 500 miles north of here. According to a local newspaper at the time, the crowd went wild for Northern Haze. Young folks were screaming their hearts out. But despite the raucous reception, Northern Haze didn’t win. They got second place.
James Ungalaq I was so devastated. That was hard for a while.
Nick Mott But, out of the blue, months later, the CBC got in touch with them again.
James Ungalaq They came back to us and asked if we wanted to do a recording. That’s what we ended up doing with the Sinnaktuq album.
Nick Mott So you lost the competition, but you ended up getting to record anyway?
James Ungalaq Yes. Yeah, we were so lucky. Yeah.
CBC Announcer The 32-input board glows in the semi-darkened room, while the 2-inch, 24-track tape rolls. An all-Inuit band from Igloolik called Northern Haze lays down music for the first Inuit rock and roll album.
Nick Mott This is a CBC Radio recording from March of 1985. In the 1970s, the CBC started recording and documenting Inuit music in the north. But much of it was traditional or children’s music, or acoustic country and folk. And Northern Haze was all about rock and roll.
Nick Mott They plugged in their guitars and turned up the distortion. They played heavy metal – but they weren’t just imitating the rockers they’d heard on the radio. They were making it their own. Northern Haze sung in Inuktitut, and it was one of the first rock albums in an indigenous language in North America.
CBC Announcer Northern Haze is taking a new direction in the presentation of Inuit ideas. Their style is heavy metal. Their music incorporates the ideas of the past with hopes and aspirations for the future.
Nick Mott After decades of suppression of indigenous languages in Canada’s north, the band became a sensation here. They got mobbed by fans at shows around this part of the Arctic. And in a way, they make famous bands like Black Sabbath or Led Zeppelin seem tame. I mean nothing says “metal” like a place that’s sub-zero and dark for months of the year.
Nunavut, the territory I’m in, was created in 1999. After decades of negotiation, Inuit won their rights to self-governance on a chunk of land ceded from the Northwest Territories. 85 percent of people in the territory are Inuit. However, about half the population speaks mostly English at home.
Here and across Canada, the census shows the proportion of Inuit people who speak Inuktitut keeps going down.
Ned Searles People think that Inuktitut is one of these genius things of our planet. And if we don’t take steps to preserve it, then it’s gonna be lost forever.
Nick Mott Ned Searles is a cultural anthropologist at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. He’s been studying the impact of colonization in the Canadian Arctic for more than two decades.
We talked over a Google Hangout while he was in his office, surrounded by books.
Ned Searles I’m interested in these issues, how the co-presence of Inuit and qallunaat – qallunaat means white people – it’s what you and I are. When these two things come into contact, how do Inuit fit them in their world?
Nick Mott Inuktitut’s part of a bigger family called Eskimo-Aleut languages. They all come from what linguists call the same “proto-language,” or ancestor language from western Alaska or eastern Siberia.
Ned Searles The Inuit that you hear in Iqaluit is basically the same Inuktitut that was spoken 500 years ago in the west coast of Alaska.
Nick Mott Inuit are descendants of people who crossed the Bering Land Bridge from what we now call Russia into the Americas. They made their way west to east, and formed small communities across the frozen north, all the way to Greenland. And across that whole distance, the structure of the language is mostly the same.
Ned Searles You have various kind of parts. You have noun-chunks, verb-chunks, and then adjective phrases and you kind of put them all together. I shot a caribou, tuktu-yunga – now that has a subject, verb and object all in it.
Nick Mott And that’s one word?
Ned Searles That’s one word.
Nick Mott So instead of separate words for parts of speech like nouns, verbs and adjectives, Inuktitut can get at complex ideas and actions in a single word. You can take a word chunk, add on to it, and expand the meaning or descriptiveness ever outward. Just one utterance can contain multitudes.
English speakers tend to borrow words from other languages – kind of like the way we use the Inuktitut word, kayak. But Inuktitut speakers can incorporate new ideas or objects differently. They take a word that already exists and then mold it around the new object, or concept.
Ned Searles Aupalootsiguti, that’s the word for lipstick in Inuktitut, okay? Lipstick, translates: “Which is used so that it becomes red.” Isn’t that funny? Carpet. Alooyauvik. Carpet: “Where one rubs the soles of his or her feet.” Where one, I mean that’s got like a pronoun, a conjunction, a subject predicate, I mean, a verb object.
Nick Mott One of my favorites is the word for Internet, which translates roughly to “that which travels through layers.” It’s a nod to Inuit shamanism. Like the shaman in a trance, you can be in any place you want, with any people you want, in any time you want, with the click of a mouse when you’re online.
Ned Searles It doesn’t lose its identity when new objects and new terms come in. They get churned up and reinvented in a local terminology.
Nick Mott Ned says there are differences in Inuktitut as you span Canada, especially in pronunciation. You might’ve even noticed this season – Amy said in-you-it back in Alaska, and I’m saying ee-noo-eet here since that’s how people in Iqaluit pronounce it. But all across the Inuit homeland, Ned says the genius of the language remains the same: it can adapt to a changing world, while still hanging on to its own identity. And it can also describe the environment in intricate, creative detail.
Ned Searles Climate change is happening really fast in the Arctic. Maybe this knowledge, this kind of linguistic knowledge is gonna help us to understand better both short-term and long-term changes, its effects on the environment, its effects on the landscape, its effect on the ecosystems.
Nick Mott Ned also says the words that aren’t in Inuktitut say a lot about the world around us. There’s no word for nature, for example. And that’s because the idea that the environment is something outside of and separate from humans doesn’t make sense in the north. As you’ve heard throughout this season of the show, people in the Arctic are facing a new pressure that’s shifting things like never before. Many people I talked to said warming temperatures have already damaged knowledge that’s been around for millennia in the Arctic. It’s a serious challenge to hunting, travel and tradition. But part of what Ned’s saying is that all this change doesn’t have to spell doom for Inuit culture because this language is designed for adaptation.
Aaju Peter Would you like something in your tea?
Nick Mott No, I can have it just like it is.
Nick Mott This is Aaju Peter. We’re in her home in Iqaluit, overlooking Frobisher Bay.
As she knits a tie out of sealskin and brews us a vat of strong tea, she tells me about an Inuktitut term that means a lot to her.
Aaju Peter The knowledge of the mind. Sila. The term for our mind is the same term as we have for the universe, and our mind is so powerful that our body is like a feather being blown away in the tundra. That knowledge of how powerful the mind is, we should keep that knowledge.
Nick Mott It’s early afternoon, and the sun is setting over the frozen bay, casting an orange glow over her kitchen table. Aaju has jet-black tattoos, thin lines that run down her forehead, chin and hands.
Aaju Peter The hand tattoos I chose because they look like these little mountains, and they’re actually depicting the flame of the oil lamp.
Nick Mott Aaju actually grew up in Greenland, which is right next door to this part of Canada. The Inuit language in Greenland is closely related to Inuktitut, but not quite the same. And Aaju was also sent to a school where she wasn’t allowed to speak her native language.
Aaju Peter It’s like if we imposed to southerners, to white people, that we can only teach the students Chinese in school, and then the children lose their own language, and they can’t even communicate with their own parents. It’s exactly the same thing.
Nick Mott After years in boarding school, she moved back to her home community in Greenland. But when she arrived, she felt ashamed that she’d lost her language and culture.
Aaju Peter I actually thought it was my own fault, and so I did everything, everything to regain that knowledge.
Nick Mott She says she carried a little notebook with her, and wrote down new terms every day. But it didn’t stop there. In 2001, she joined the inaugural class of the first law school in the Canadian Arctic in Iqaluit.
Aaju Peter I was interested in that because it seemed that if you can understand the western laws, the white man’s laws, I can help explain why they were being made to unilingual Inuit elders.
Nick Mott She graduated in 2005. Ever since, she’s used that education to advocate for Inuit rights to hunt, and to maintain culture and lifestyle in the face of a rapidly changing planet.
Aaju Peter As opposed to just taking the fact that I was assimilated and colonized as a barrier, I’ve just turned it around and started using it.
Nick Mott When European lifestyles were forced into northern Canada, Inuktitut was able to hold on to its essence. In that same way, Aaju’s been able to take a lifetime of change and maintain her own identity. It makes me think of that notion of Sila she told me about.
Aaju Peter All you need to survive up here in the minus 50, minus 60, where there’s nothing but snow and ice, is your mind. The power of your mind.
Nick Mott Aaju Peter and James Ungalaq are two of many people across the Canadian Arctic who spent their youths pushed away from their culture, and who are now devoting their adulthoods to reconnecting to it.
James Ungalaq The more we cherish, preserve, protect and promote our identity, it’ll just get stronger and stronger. And that’s what I want for my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren.
Nick Mott We're heading back to the recording studio, after the break.
Nick Mott Welcome back to Threshold, I'm Nick Mott, and I'm back in that house-turned-recording studio in Iqaluit, Canada, watching Northern Haze hone their new track.
[MUSIC: NORTHERN HAZE]
James shuts his eyes and contorts his mouth when he belts out his songs. He’s here, in his music, and nowhere else. Day after day, take after take, he doesn’t lose that presence. It’s kind of remarkable.
I leave the band and the recording and go downstairs to talk to Andrew Morrison, who’s helping the band handle the logistics of their sessions.
Andrew Morrison We live in one of, I think, the coolest music scenes in the world.
Nick Mott Andrew Morrison grew up in Iqaluit, and in 2016, he helped found the first record label in Nunavut, called Aakuluk Music. He's arranged for Northern Haze, to record their first album of new music in 30 years.
Andrew Morrison There’s nowhere like Iqaluit, man, everybody’s style comes together and you can make some really interesting, unique music. It’s reggae, blues, soul, hard rock.
Nick Mott Andrew says Northern Haze has been an inspiration to his own music. He’s in a band, too. It’s called The Jerry Cans.
Andrew Morrison We all grew up up north, and as young people here we sometimes struggle to find stuff to do which didn’t involve getting into too much trouble, but so music was a big part of that and we would jam in my garage or find some jam space and just play music and it was a way that we could all just hang out.
Nick Mott The Jerry Cans’ music is uniquely northern: they sing about things like the high cost of living up here, how delicious seal tastes, and the beauty of the land around them.
Nick Mott Just like James, Andrew sings mostly in Inuktitut. But Andrew, like most of the members of The Jerry Cans, is white.
Growing up, Andrew spoke English. But he learned Inuktitut for one of the same reasons humans have always done difficult things: love. He fell for an Inuit woman named Nancy Mike.
Nancy’s a throat singer in the Jerry Cans. Throat singing has been part of Inuit culture for centuries. Traditionally it was a kind of game, in which two women face each other, mouths nearly touching. One leads and the other follows, filling in gaps with the sounds of inhales and exhales.
When I was in Iqaluit, I was lucky enough to attend a play put on by a local theater company – and I recorded this during the performance.
Just like language, throat singing was suppressed in the days of missionaries and colonization. But it’s seen a revival in recent years, and Nancy’s one of the women helping to bring it back. I really wanted to talk to Nancy, but she was in Ottawa when I was in Iqaluit, tending to her and Andrew’s newborn baby.
Part of making a life together meant Andrew had to win over Nancy’s family, who speaks Inuktitut. So he’d go hunting with her father and practice the language.
Andrew Morrison So when I was trying to impress my in-laws, I had to learn a little bit quicker.
Nick Mott Andrew started singing in Inuktitut too, and he used his music to help learn the language.
Andrew Morrison I have a song about it, about how I get laughed at every day. That’s a lyric in a song. Because when I try to speak Inuktitut I screw up, and I’m super pale, so I blush really crazily. But I think it’s important for non-Inuit and non-indigenous people to engage with helping to preserve language and to learn it themselves and to be put in really uncomfortable positions.
Nick Mott Around 2014, The Jerry Cans’ music started to take off. They got international attention, and toured in Australia and Europe. They felt on the verge of breaking out.
They started getting meetings with record labels. They were hopeful they’d get signed, make it big. But each time they sat down with the bigwigs:
Andrew Morrison Every single answer we got was, nope sorry, you don't sing in English so we're not going to sign you.
Nick Mott The labels kept turning them down. Andrew says it was really disheartening. And finally he said–
Andrew Morrison Screw it, we’re gonna start our own. And then start our own that prioritizes Inuktitut music and prioritizes Nunavut music.
Nick Mott They called the label Aakuluk Music.
Nick Mott Now, there are five bands signed to the label, including Northern Haze. Aakuluk’s helped arrange everything to make recording the band’s new album possible.
Andrew Morrison The pressure to sing in English was so immense, it was awful. People have said no to us more than I can even explain to you. We get doors shut and face all the time, but we're now more confident and we're building a good team of other artists than supporting each other, and I think really knocking down some walls within radio and within the industry to allow non-English music to flourish and be supported because we know that there's an audience and market for it.
Nick Mott When Nunavut was created goals were set to preserve culture and language: proportional representation in government, economic opportunities for Inuit, education and services that help Inuktitut thrive. But progress towards those ideals has fallen short of expectations.
A decade ago, lawmakers pledged to make K-12 education in the territory fully bilingual in both English and Inuktitut. But right now, the vast majority of public school takes place in English. and last year, citing a lack of teachers, the government announced they were pushing back the bilingual education plan by at least a decade for most grades. So it's still an uphill battle.
Andrew Morrison A lot more young people are choosing English to express themselves now just because all of the influences they see in their life. All the cool people are speaking English. All the cool things are happening in English. And again that's what we're trying to challenge a little bit that there's lots of cool shit happening in Nunavut. That young people can grab onto and see themselves reflected in.
Nick Mott That’s where both Northern Haze and The Jerry Cans fit back in. There’s this circle of inspiration in the north. Northern Haze inspired this whole generation of musicians like The Jerry Cans to hang onto Inuktitut, at all cost.
Andrew Morrison The band that’s recording here now, Northern Haze, I just asked them what song was about off the cuff, having coffee here, and he just stopped and very casually said I want every young person to be proud of who they are. There’s so much stigma to encourage young people to hate who they are and to hate their culture and to speak English and to give up their culture, that I want every young person to be proud of who they are and where they came from.
Nick Mott And now, this younger generation is inspiring Northern Haze right back.
James Ungalaq Oh, they’re so cool. They’re creating opportunity for other musicians to express themselves and to, yeah, they are creating opportunity.
Nick Mott James and I are talking in a hallway downstairs while members of Northern Haze and The Jerry Cans skitter frantically about, getting ready to record their next song.
Nick Mott Tell me about the title of this album that you’re recording right now.
James Ungalaq In my language it’s Siqinnaarut, and it means the return of the sun.
Nick Mott In some areas north of the Arctic Circle, people can spend months in darkness. So when the sun peeks back over the horizon for the first time, it's an occasion.
James Ungalaq The return of the sun is a celebration of the sun when it returns after a dark period of winter and, um, return of light and life. It’s gonna get better from here on.
Life is too hard without music. You know, when you’re sick you take a pill, when you break your leg you put a cast on. Sometimes you find answers in your songs and sometimes you find good questions to ask
Nick Mott One night in Iqaluit, I go to a concert highlighting Nunavut music. A singer/songwriter named Lazarus opens the show, playing acoustic pop, mostly in Inuktitut.
Nick Mott Then more local musicians join him on stage, paying homage to Nunavut music. They cover some Northern Haze songs, and James is here, watching the show. It would be kind of like singing “Satisfaction” with Mick Jagger in the crowd – by the end of the night, everybody here’s losing their minds.
This is a Northern Haze song called “Angajuksakuluk.”
A couple days later, I talk to James about what it was like to be at the show when they played that song.
James Ungalaq It choked me. Knowing I’m passing on some new language. And having fun and joy watching those younger musicians. I, it choked me. I had a big apple in my throat. I almost cried. I love it. There are so few people who speak our language. They’ll probably be broke for 30 years like me, but they got a bigger reward at the end, preserving and protecting their culture.
Nelson Mandela can make those changes, so can I. If Martin Luther King can change a whole generation, so can I. If Gandhi can stand up to the British in front of their guns, yeah, so be it, you know?
Nick Mott So you see music as a form of resistance?
James Ungalaq Absolutely. It’s our voice. It’s a great way to go through under the rug and get into the source. Yeah, like under the closed door, between the cracks.
Nick Mott In the spring of 2018, just a few months after I recorded these interviews, The Jerry Cans – Andrew’s band - were nominated for two Juno Awards. They’re the Canadian equivalent of the Grammys. The Jerry Cans were asked to perform at the show, but they wanted to make the performance about more than just themselves. They wanted to showcase their community. So they flew down several Nunavut musicians to join them on the stage, including James. He wore a hat that said “Inuk.” It’s the singular of Inuit.
The Jerry Cans didn’t win any awards. But with James onstage, they played their big hit, Ukiuq. The English version goes by the name “Northern Lights.” And in front of the entire country, they sang the whole thing in Inuktitut.
Amy Martin Production partners for season two of Threshold are Montana Public Radio and PRI's The World. Our reporting was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, the Park Foundation, and by you, our listeners. Make your contribution today at thresholdpodcast.org.
Nick Mott The album Northern Haze was recording when I was in Iqaluit came out just a couple weeks ago. Find it wherever you get your music. But Northern Haze and The Jerry Cans are just two of many bands in Canada’s north gaining popularity across the country and preserving culture at once. Tanya Tagaq, Riit, The Trade-Offs - there’s just so many inventive and amazing musicians up there. Visit our website for photos and a Spotify playlist featuring lots more music from Nunavut.
Threshold is made by Amy Martin, Rachel Cramer, Cheryl Skibicki and me, Nick Mott, with help from Frank Allen, Jackson Barnett, Josh Burnham, Michael Connor, Rosie Costain, Maxine Speier, Matt Herlihy, Rachel Klein, Zoë Rom, Nora Saks, and Zach Wilson. Special thanks to The Jerry Cans and Northern Haze, who welcomed me into their recording sessions, and pretty much everybody I met in Iqaluit.
And on the next episode of Threshold:
Joel Harper If you took all this ice and converted it to water and added it to the ocean, sea level would come up seven meters.
Amy Martin Whoa.
Joel Harper So that's how much ice is here. Quite a lot.
Nick Mott Join Amy and a team of scientists on the Greenland Ice Sheet.
I’m gonna let The Jerry Cans play us out.