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Inuit Throat-Singing: A Guttural Game Gets a Cultural Resurgence

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Karin and Kathy Kettler, throat singers and drum dancers performing at the Circumpolar Music Festival (via Alaska Dispatch/Vimeo)

Throat singing is an Inuit oral tradition that’s been passed on from generation to generation with no record of when it began. According to Watchers of the North’s history, this is mostly due to the fact that for a long time the Inuit did not keep any written records or documents. As noted on Canada Pages, Inuit throat-singing is considered in the ethnomusicology as a form of “verbal art.” While this is not the only culture to practice throat-singing—it also exists in the Russian Arctic, Scandinavia, Northern Japan, Tibet, Mongolia, and South Africa—the uniqueness of Inuit practice is how female-centered it is, and how it’s based on more of a game than a song. 

The Inuit live mostly in the polar region of northern Canada, stretching from Alaska to Greenland. Inuit throat-singing is practiced mainly in the regions of Nunavut—one of Canada’s three polar territories (the other two being the Yukon and Northwest Territories) established in 1999—as well as Northern Quebec and Baffin Island. 

article-imageKenojuak Ashevak, “Katajaktuiit (Throat Singers Gathering)” (1991), color lithograph (courtesy St. Lawrence University, Richard F. Brush Art Gallery)

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Map of the Inuit regions of Canada (via statcan.qc.ca)

Karin and Kathy Kettler, sisters from Nunavik in northern Quebec, are among the youngest generation of Inuit throat-singers. At the Circumpolar Music and Dance Festival this past year held in Anchorage, Alaska, they performed and shared their knowledge of throat-singing.

“It’s a friendly competition between girls, something they would do while the men were out hunting,” said Kathy in at interview at the conference. Karin added: ”It’s part of Inuit culture. It’s an oral tradition, it’s something that can’t be written down, it has to be learned from someone else,.”

A “game” of throat-singing begins with two women facing each other, standing close and sometimes holding each other’s arms. One begins to sing, while the other follows. The game can last up to a few minutes, and ends when one loses her breath, laughs, or breaks concentration in any way. Some sources, such as Pulaarvik Kablu Friendership Centre, cite that it was once practiced with their lips practically touching, the women using their opponent’s mouth cavity as a sound resonator.

Throat-singing involves taking deep, heavy breaths, which creates a very unique sound. “It’s imitations of the sounds that we hear around us, like animals and tools of nature,” Kathy explained at the conference. Her sister Karin also explained the point of the two-person game of throat-singing: “It’s the same sound, but only a half second off from each other, and that’s how we can blend our voices. Throat-singing comes from our voice, our throat, and our breathing.” 

At Free Spirit Gallery, they explain the meaning of the different tones in Inuit throat-singing. The sounds are “voiced or unvoiced,” and produced by inhaling or exhaling. Songs are composed of words in the Inuktitut language, along with haphazard syllables. These random sounds are improvised and inspired from the sounds heard in nature and their surroundings at the time of singing. For example, in a performance entitled “Cleaning” the performers mimic the sound of a dog sled being cleaned. Another song called “Dog and Wolf” is simply the words “dog” and “wolf” in Inuktitut said over and over again. 

Local priests banned throat-singing 100 years ago, however, the ban was lifted in the 1980s and was followed by a revival. In 2001 the first throat-singing conference was held in Puvernituk, Nunavut. While it was once mainly a pastime and game for Inuit women, it has evolved into a source of pride and identity for the Inuit people. Throat-singing was even featured at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

Kathy Kettler explained this “revival” in an interview at the First Americans Festival in 2004: “Throat-singing was almost lost for a while until the elders decided that it would be important for young people to start learning how to throat-sing. In recent years it’s come back quite strong. It’s really strengthening relationships between the Inuit.” 

The Kettler sisters are just an example of the young generation of Inuit women who are embracing throat-singing. As Kathy stated: “For us we consider throat-singing our strength as Inuit people.”


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