A short history of throat singing, part 1

Last week, in one of the final filming days, DOP Steph Weimar was able to get some footage of Wendy Alookee and Dana Totalik, both part of the Junior Rangers patrol, throat-singing out on the land.

“Really beautiful, actually,” she said. “The girls were great.”

Now, in this three-part series, we’re going to be taking a little look at the quintessentially Inuit vocal style: its origins, its cultural importance, and exactly how the singers create those incredible and inimitable sounds. But first:

What exactly is throat-singing?

Throat-singing is a form of overtone singing, which exists across the world — Tibet, Scandinavia, and South Africa, among other countries. But what makes Inuit throat-singing, also called katajjaq, unique is how female-dominated it is, and the tradition of it being sung in duets, allowing for complex harmonizing between partners.

Two women face each other, usually holding arms, and one begins to sing. She lays down a rhythmic pattern, leaving bits of silence between the repetition of the pattern. The other singer then fills these in with a different pattern. And it can be a fun, lighthearted competition: whoever runs out of breath or laughs first, ‘loses.’

In many ways, it’s not even ‘singing,’ in the European sense; it is more of a vocal or breathing game.

A bit of history…

Because the Inuit didn’t keep written records, there’s no information on when or where throat-singing originated in the Canadian Arctic. It’s thought that it began as a game women developed to pass time while men were out hunting, and many of the sounds mimic everyday sounds and sounds of their environment. Coarse breathing helps fill out the sound, and adds a percussive backing to the call-and-answer style of singing.

Throat-singing was, unbelievably, banned by Christan priests when they arrived, and this ban lasted for decades. The clergy, depending on your source, viewed it either as “rude,” “inappropriate,” or “the devil’s voice.” Sometime in the early 1980s, this ban was lifted, and throat-singing started to resurface in the North. It’s still somewhat small, as it now has many more forms of entertainment to compete against. But if the Junior Rangers we filmed are any proof, it’s still a form young people are getting involved with.

Check out this fantastic video of throat singing: