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ARCHIVED - Aboriginal Sound Recordings: Music and Song

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The Inuit

Traditional Music

Traditionally, the three basic music forms found in most regions include throat songs, drum dance and a-ja-ja songs (singing with drums).
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Throat Singing

There are various names for this ancient form of music: katajjait (Ungava region), kataksatuk (Iglulik) and pirkusiarartuq (Netsilik and Caribou). Other forms of throat singing exist in Siberia and Tuva.

Often improvised, katajjaits are duets performed by women who stand face to face (sometimes in groups of four) and produce rhythmic or guttural sounds through vocal manipulation and breathing techniques. They produce rhythms that reach 240 beats a minute or more. Traditionally, katajjaits were performed during the spring equinox and the winter and summer solstices, or when men were away hunting.

The katajjait texts can include comprehensible words or stories. They may use words that have lost their meaning as well as vocables (singing with a non-word, such as "tra-la-la" verbal sounds), or they may mimic sounds from nature. Singers sometimes use kettles, pans and other objects as resonators to create special sounds. In some cases, singers use the jew's-harp (jaw harp) as a solo instrument.

A good throat singer can perform with stamina and endurance, using a vast song repertoire. Singers improvise, making creative choices of vocal effects, timbre and rhythm. The end of the song occurs when one or both singers become exhausted, or start to laugh, or are unable to follow a tempo or to initiate a new cycle of song.

Drum Dance

The drum (qillat) is oval, usually about 10 by 20 centimetres, with a short handle fitted on the long side. Traditionally, the drums were made of walrus skin, held around the bone frame by a narwhal tendon. Modern drums are made from synthetic materials.

After dampening the drum skin, the drummer stands with legs bent, holding the drum in the left hand and the drumstick (traditionally a walrus rib and about 28 centimetres long) in the right. The drummer also holds a short staff called a piksi. The drummer strikes the drum along the outside edge, near the frame, holding the drumstick about two-thirds of the way down.

The singing that accompanies drumming is called ingmerneq. The songs are divided into three parts. The last part of a song can last as long as half an hour.

A-ja-ja Songs

Drum songs known as a-ja-ja (also ayaya or ja ja) use both vocables and words. The name of the singing style is derived from the vocable "jai-jai," although drum songs may also use words for story songs played with a smaller hand drum.

The distinctive handle drum is used throughout the region stretching from Greenland and across much of Arctic Canada to the Mackenzie River. The instrument is relatively large (about 45 centimetres across). It is flipped from side to side and struck with a drumstick.

From the Mackenzie Delta west, singers in groups use a similar drum to accompany their songs. Motion dances and drum dances use combinations of drum and voice, either vocable or word songs.