The Sound of Antiquity

Two Arctic throat singers from Canada vocalise one of the world’s oldest forms of music

Written by Jaskiran Kapoor | Chandigarh | Published: June 29, 2013 4:48 am

In ancient times,the Inuit women (an indigenous clan of northern Canada) devised a way to entertain themselves while their men were away on long hunting trips. They would hold hands,in groups or in pairs,and sing — not with words or instruments,but in a guttural style,inspired by the sounds of nature. They relied on short,sharp,rhythmic inhalations and exhalations of breath. “They would also use it to sing babies to sleep,” says Kathy Kettler,who was in the city along with fellow Arctic throat singer Kendra Tagoona,at the invitation of the Consulate General of Canada in Chandigarh to celebrate Canada Day on June 26.

The duo introduced the city to one of the world’s oldest forms of music: throat singing. “It’s more of a women’s tradition,and has been around for a while,” says Kettler,who has been practising the art for 15 years. “It’s a friendly and easy-going game,” she adds.

The art has featured in some films as well. In The Simpsons Movie (2007),Homer Simpson is shown throat singing with an Inuit woman in order to have an epiphany. Even British ITV documentary Billy Connolly: Journey to the Edge of the World and 2012 CBC TV drama series Arctic Air feature throat singing .

“It’s a rather fascinating form of communication,and whoever leads,determines the song. There is no structure to this music,” says Kettler,adding,“One gets a split second to absorb,change and imitate the other and this requires a lot of practice.” This is one of the reasons that women hold each others arms and maintain eye contact.

As one listens to them,the duo plays with their vocal chords and manipulate their breath to give out various sounds — raucous to raspy,grating to gruff and high to hoarse. More than practice,it also demands lung power. “Our instrument is our throat,and the longest one can sing like this is four minutes,” says Tagoona.

An almost rare art form,throat singing is also found in Tibet,Mongolia and South Africa. “Throat singing was banned in northern Canada over 100 years ago by missionaries but it is experiencing a revival,especially among the younger generation who wants to connect with the Inuit tradition,” says Kettler,who also teaches the art form in Canada.

“The music reflects the landscape,and imitates sounds of the natural surroundings. We keep listening to the sounds of polar bears,wolves,birds,streams and wind and keep practising it,” says Tagoona. It’s their first time in India,and the girls joke how “honking” is the sound they will remember,and that of a bird with yellow legs.

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