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Deantha Edmunds, the first musical performer to be longlisted for the Kenojuak Ashevak Memorial Award, is also widely recognized as the first Inuk professional classical singer.
Inspired by the rich music history of Labrador, the St. John’s–based writer and singer began her career drawing on Christian hymns and other sacred works brought to the region by the Moravian missionaries starting in the late 1700s, which were then translated into Inuktitut, spawning a unique cultural tradition. Like her ancestors before her, Edmunds makes these compositions her own, while penning new songs that address contemporary Inuit life.
Here, IAQ Deputy Editor Sue Carter hears from Edmunds on five performances that speak to the heart of her musical practice.
“Sons of Labrador/Labradorimiut” at the Frankfurt Book Fair
In October 2021, Canada was spotlighted as the country of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the world’s largest publishing trade exhibition. At a celebratory Canada Night event, Edmunds performed “Sons of Labrador,” the lively theme song for the long-running Inuktitut television show, Labradorimiut—but with a twist.
“When I found out there was a classical arrangement of the song, I was so excited to add it to my repertoire,” says Edmunds, who included the song on her 2019 EP, My Beautiful Home.
Showcasing her roots, Edmunds stood in front of a photo of the Torngat Mountains in Nunatsiavut, wearing a caribou-fur and antler cowl and earrings designed by Inuk artist Hovak Johnston, while performing to an international audience that included Mary Simon, the newly appointed Governor General of Canada and the first Inuk to hold the position.
Growing up in Corner Brook, NL, Labradorimiut provided Edmunds insight into life in Nunatsiavut, where her father was raised. She recalls him singing the popular tune while playing the guitar as Edmunds and her siblings would join in. Before she left home for university, Edmunds recorded the song from the TV on her clunky boombox; the old cassette has travelled along with her to this day.
“Legacy” with the Shallaway Youth Choir and the NL Deaf Choir at the 2022 Podium National Choral Festival
Edmunds wrote this song, which appears on 2022’s Connections, her first album of all original compositions, as she was struggling with feelings of helplessness and wanting to draw more attention to MMIWG2S+.
St. John’s musician Leslee Heys arranged the string-quartet accompaniment for “Legacy,” and also this special choral arrangement for Edmunds to perform with Shallaway Youth Choir. They performed together led by Shallaway Artistic Director Kellie Walsh at the Podium National Choral Festival, accompanied by string quartet, oboe and the NL Deaf Choir. “There was a soloist from the NL Deaf Choir standing next to me signing the words that I was singing,” Edmunds says. “It was really very powerful.”
Prior to the performance, Edmunds spoke at a song-sharing session about why she wrote the song, inviting the audience to later join in the final chorus, a moment that still gives Edmunds the shivers. “I told everybody that by being there together, by setting our intentions together, by opening our hearts and raising our voices, we were changing the vibrations of the space that we were sharing and sending healing energy out into the world, so that we were not only bringing about awareness, but building hope to change,” she says.
This performance also exemplifies Edmunds’ desire to show younger generations passing the message of hope forward: the student singing the solo near the end of the performance is her daughter, Annabelle.
Excerpt from Makkipok!
This 2018 performance features Edmunds as a soloist—accompanied by the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra and 100 voices from the Lady Cove Women's Choir and Newman Sound Men's Choir—at the Basilica Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in St. John's, NL, in front of a live audience of more than 2,000 people, with even more enjoying the Labrador Inuit Easter and Passiontide music via a live stream.
“I am honoured to be able to preserve this tradition and to celebrate it because I feel like it is a real sign of Inuit agency in the face of colonial institutions for centuries,” says Edmunds, who wore an akulik designed by Chantelle Andersen. “When I sing it, I feel closer to my ancestors and my heritage, and I think about this music in their language carried on their breaths. These melodies and prayers that I share today.”
The performance was also personal in its dedication to the late Inuk tenor Karrie Obed, with whom Edmunds recorded the 2016 album, Pillorikput Inuit – Inuktitut Arias for All Seasons. Obed was originally scheduled to perform alongside her at the Basilica. Edmunds was also still grieving the loss of her beloved father, who had died months before.
“I remember the feeling of standing there singing and feeling close to him, like I was moving into a better place,” she says. “Music does that for us. It allows us to move through our emotions and release what we need to; whether we're making the music or listening. It can be so cathartic.”
In 2020, Edmunds took part in an inventive adaptation of Handel’s “Messiah,” produced by Against the Grain Theatre and co-directed by Inuvialuk, Cree and Dene writer and actor Reneltta Arluk. The streamed video performance Messiah/Complex featured 12 soloists and four choirs from across Canada, singing in a multitude of languages, with accompaniment by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.
“The project was so unique because their goal was to amplify and honour Indigenous and other underrepresented voices,” Edmunds says.
In this video—the first released publicly from the project—Edmunds sings the aria “Kuvianattuksovut Itigangit” (“How Beautiful are the Feet”) in Inuttitut, dressed in a cape designed again by Andersen, with sealskin boots created by Heather Angnatok.
The final track on Connections features throat singers Ashley Dicker and Jennie Williams, accompanied by the Atlantic String Quartet. When Edmunds was writing the song, she was thinking “about how grateful I am. To be who I am, and to be in this life and doing the work that I do, to have love and family and friends and lots of support.”
In the last part of the song, the string quartet plays a long sustained chord as Edmunds sings, “How will you be remembered?”, followed by Dicker and Williams’ voices. “I wanted to acknowledge the fact that before this contemporary classical Indigenous music, before church music, there was throat singing, which is such an ancient sacred practice and tradition that should be honoured.”
Edmunds asked Dicker and Williams to sing ”Love Song” for this track because “to me, that’s what it’s all about in this life.” In the song and the album’s final moments listeners will hear a gentle bubble of laughter from the throat singers, which Edmunds insisted on keeping on the recording. “I wanted this song to end with gentle, happy love.”
Read more about the other longlisted artists.
The Kenojuak Ashevak Memorial Award is made possible through the support of individual donors and RBC Emerging Artists.