Performer Charlotte Qamaniq, a member of the Juno Award-nominated Silla and Rise, doesn’t usually run throat singing workshops for strangers, in part because of the intimacy and cultural significance that goes along with the medium. She made an exception, however, to lead two De-ICE-olation workshops in early April with Inuit participating remotely from Nunavik to Japan.
A partnership between the Inuit Futures in Arts Leadership Project—an initiative that aims to support Inuit in Canada in their pursuit of higher education and professional opportunities—and the Inuit Art Foundation, the workshops have been created to offer paid opportunities for Inuit artists while addressing the increasing isolation being experienced by Inuit artists and others amidst the coronavirus pandemic. At present they will continue through the month of May. This past week I called Charlotte to hear more about how the online workshops worked out. As we all grow increasingly more used to online platforms like Zoom, I was interested to hear how other Inuit were adapting to personal interactions experienced mostly on computers.
Qamaniq was initially slated to deliver one workshop on April 3, but when it gained traction online and spots filled up immediately, Inuit Futures and the Inuit Art Foundation received multiple requests to run another, which was arranged for April 15 with the number of participants increased from ten to twenty. The popularity of Qamaniq’s workshops are a testament to Inuit interest in traditional throat singing, and the limited availability of access to lessons, something Qamaniq herself struggled with when she first started throat singing in her late teens. “Me and my throat singing partner Cynthia Pitsiulak learned bits and pieces of songs and gathered as much information as we could and brought it back to each other and taught each other.”
The workshops were open only to Inuit, something that is important to Qamaniq in order to avoid issues of cultural appropriation. She notes that even when asked by Inuit to run workshops, she usually declines. “I don’t normally teach workshops, it’s a touchy thing, you know?,” she explains. “I’ve taught individual friends of mine, but when I am asked to teach a workshop, especially if it is non-Inuit, I’ll say no.” Although happy to do demonstrations and perform with her partner Cynthia Pitsiulak of Silla and Rise, Qamaniq says the craft of throat singing requires considerable practice and dedication. There is also a deep cultural and emotional connection to the practice for Inuit that requires a delicate hand when making decisions on who you can learn or be taught the art form.
This careful treatment of passing traditional knowledge on to others is particularly important in light of the controversy that followed the 2019 Indigenous Music Awards last spring when Inuit musicians boycotted the awards when Cree musician Connie LeGrande was nominated for an album that heavily featured Inuit style throat singing. Qamaniq’s decision to run the popular workshop online was made both to connect with other Inuit who have been self-isolating as well as to supplement her lost income from recent cancellations of performances and other projects. Like many other musicians and performers around the world, Qamaniq has had all of her engagements cancelled for the foreseeable future.
Although Zoom is not the ideal setting for the traditional art of throat singing, which involves a call and response style exchange, where two participants sing back and forth while facing one another, Qamaniq said that she did her best to teach participants the history behind the practice as well as the basics of technique and four traditional songs. Qamaniq lamented the difficulties of teaching throat singing over Zoom; “I was only able to teach them as much as I could about timing. And the fact that throat singers don’t sing at the same time.”
The workshops were open to all ages and skill levels, including children, which can pose unique challenges for a teacher. Qamaniq asked each participant their age and skill level to get a sense of what their diverse needs might be. “It turned out to be much easier than expected,” she said, even with children taking part. “It wasn’t a problem at all.”
What immediately struck me when I heard about these online workshops was the need for adequate bandwidth, which many Inuit communities do not have, particularly in Nunavut. Although Qamaniq noted that streaming didn’t seem to be a problem for the groups, she did notice that most of those participating were urban Inuit, joining Zoom from cities rather than smaller communities. This highlights a major obstacle that remains for many Inuit artists and residents living in the North during self-isolation–without access to high-speed internet and affordable streaming services, most remain cut off from the limited online opportunities being offered for creative engagement at this time.
Despite the struggles of running distance workshops, Qamaniq and those in attendance were happy and excited to be able to share an ancient and joyous tradition with other Inuit around the world. “It really made my heart happy to see children participating,” said Qamaniq, “because I didn’t have that when I was growing up.”