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A Far & Wide Dive Into The Inuit Art Of Throat Singing

Culturalist Heidi Langille calls herself an Urban Inuk. Living just outside of Ottawa, Langille has turned her dedication to preserving and promoting Inuit culture into a career. She travels across Canada teaching and demonstrating drumming, traditional games, and throat singing. During Adventure Canada’s High Arctic expedition, we asked her to talk to us about the music that fellow Inuk artists like Tanya Tagaq, Silla and Rise, and  have made massively popular over the past few years.


How was throat singing taught to you? Who passed on this knowledge?

I grew up listening to it but didn’t learn until I was an adult. I learned from my best friend, Linda Brown. She just said, ‘You have to learn and this is how you do it.’ It took a bit of time. I was working in downtown Ottawa at the time and I would walk down stark street practising on my own and I always got lots of stares. Everybody would leave me alone. It was tons of fun. Every time we meet, we teach each other songs that the other one doesn’t know. So I’m constantly learning new songs.


In your demonstration, you talked about how throat singing is actually a competition. Do you have a favourite partner to compete with?

I can go the longest with Linda because we’ve been doing it together for so long. But it touches me to the core whenever I get to throat sing with an elder.


Music can really evoke feelings and memories for people. What does it do for you when you hear throat singing or when you’re doing yourself? What are you thinking about?

When I’m doing it myself, I’m trying to win. When I’m listening, what I’m trying to do is decipher who’s making the sound and I’m trying to figure out who’s leading and who’s changing the sounds. I really should just sit down and enjoy it, but I’m trying to figure out more.


Do you think you can put into words how throat singing is done?

The very basic competition sounds I always write out as ‘humm-mah.’ I talk about, you know, talking like a monster. But what we’re doing is we’re making noise as we breathe in and breathe out and just adding to it.


Throat singing is traditionally done by women in Inuit communities but boys are beginning to be included as well.

Yes, Linda and I both decided that we were going to teach whoever wanted to learn. When we perform together, we have our kids with us and we both happen to have more boys than girls. So yeah, I’ve taught my boys how to throat sing. They’re not comfortable getting up and doing it just yet but it’s about sharing with anybody who wants to learn and being inclusive and ensuring that the culture continues.


Can you talk about some of your favourite songs and  what they mean to you?

My favourite song to sing is a love song. It’s, it’s softer, it doesn’t come from the throat as much. And as a throat singer, it’s actually very easy to do. The audience is always so taken by it because it sounds so amazing. It sounds so different than the other songs we’re doing. Another favourite is a story of a little girl who wanted the runt of the litter to be the leader of the dog sled team. Normally the runt doesn’t even make it into the pack. She’s singing the song to her puppy every day and he does become the leader. It’s fun to do. They’re all fun to do, but that one’s a lot of fun.


How have you seen the throat singing scene develop? In Canada, Tanya Tagaq is big name, we all know about her, but how is it changing with other artists like her coming into that scene?

It’s been such a wonderful reclamation. When I first started learning, I could count the number of people that we could learn from on one hand. Now more and more people are teaching and more and more people are learning. And then with bands like The Jerry Cans that incorporate throat singing, and Tanya Tagaq with her contemporary throat singing, and Silla and Rise, and Twin Flames — all of these bands are getting Juno nominations and recognition. It’s absolutely fantastic. Linda and I have even done throat singing with choirs, which was a lot of fun because they were like, ‘Okay, so how many beats do you do this for?’ And we’re like, ‘Dude, no, it changes every time.’

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