• Feature

How Inuktitut Music Took Over Northern Airwaves

Nov 14, 2022
by Corinne Dunphy

In the early 1960s the shortwave radio came along and CBC Northern Service, now CBC North, started up in Churchill, MB. However, the early programming lacked authentic home-grown content made for, and by, Inuit. The majority of programming was in English, but they left a scanty block of time, once a week, for Inuktitut programming. It wasn’t a lot, but it was something and the shortwave became increasingly important for Inuit because of it. Shortwave radio was and remains essential in remote communities because of the long range of its frequency distribution, which allows communities in the Far North to access content from stations in cities thousands of kilometres away. The sounds of the shortwave illuminated the room with a sort of energy that kept the home’s heartbeat steady despite the heavy darkness of the times. But Inuit yearned for more relevant broadcasts. 

The inadequate amount of Inuktut programming along with low-quality Inuit music recordings were not an oversight. Creative, fearless Inuit like William Tagoona, a musician and resident of Kuujjuaq, Nunavik, QC, sought to break the status quo.


William Tagoona 
Help Me Out (1986) Vinyl LP 29 min

From his little office, Tagoona wrote to Sheldon O’Connell, who worked at the CBC Northern Service in Montreal, QC, but never expected to receive a response. 

To this day, Tagoona has vivid memories of that letter he wrote. 

“You know, those guys down in Montreal were playing a little bit of this stuff [Inuit music] on the radio, but it was all home-recording sets. The recording quality just wasn’t there,” [1] says Tagoona, referring to the 1973 home-recording sessions that aired with trailblazer musician Charlie Panigoniak, also known as the Johnny Cash of the North. At the time, the musical formula was mainly folk songs: one singer-songwriter on an acoustic guitar and a non-Indigenous studio musician hired to accompany. 

In conversation with Tagoona, he says, “Those home recordings sent a strong message. We [Inuit] are lower class than the rest of Canadians.” Tagoona felt the airplay was not doing service to talented Inuit musicians like Charlie Panigoniak and The Sugluk Group. 

Tagoona was convincing in his plea to the CBC. Soon after, he received a letter from O’Connell, who gave him a challenge. The CBC agreed to pay Tagoona for southern backup musicians and give him the space to perform. If the tracks were successful, the CBC Northern Service would continue the sessions with other Inuit musicians. 

Tagoona packed his bag, flew to Montreal and recorded the very first Northern Service session in 1978. It didn’t take long for CBC producer Les McLaughlin to come ringing.

“Who are we going to record next?” he asked. 

“Charlie Panigoniak,” Tagoona said, without pause. 

After another success with Charlie Panigoniak, Charlie Adams was next in the queue of Inuit musicians to be recorded.

The sessions were declared a huge success. Tagoona’s vision was quickly realized and the recordings lived a sort of nomadic life, skipping from station to station across the world. Approximately 120 records were produced, with 500 discs pressed for each recording exclusively for radio stations. The musicians received a small fee for their contribution, but the sweeping magnitude of the radio’s capabilities to reach the masses was priceless. 

Ah, the warmth of a radio. Its ability to provide real-time information is unequivocally critical in a world where immeasurable amounts of information bleed through the Wi-Fi waves every second, or notably, not at all in low-bandwidth communities with spotty connectivity. 

Also, it’s free. 

With the high price tag attached to living in the North and the lack of access to basic services like reliable internet (arguably a human right), the radio cultivates a connection to community and beyond its judicial borders. According to a report released in 2017 by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, 94 per cent of Canadians have access to the internet at home, compared to only 24 per cent of Indigenous people in Canada. The radio serves as a reliable source for local and world news. Whether it is Jason Kelly’s weather updates on Qulliq, or Alec Gordan and William Tagoona’s thoughtful insights on Tuttavik, community radio in the North holds trustworthy content Inuit depend on. 

Born in Qamani’tuaq (Baker Lake), NU, in 1952, Tagoona grew up, like most of his peers, consuming media mainly from the radio. He remembers how well the AM radio operated during the long winter months. It brought in signals from all over the world. “We could get these rock and country stations coming into our homes from nations all over the world, it was just amazing,” he says. 

Lorna Panigoniak, née Tasseor, musician and wife of Charlie Panigoniak, remembers those days well. Lorna lived across the street from William Tagoona’s family growing up. Her father, Philip Tassiuk, listened to the shortwave radio at night. She remembers laying there as a child in her one-room matchbox house in Arviat, NU. At night, the room was the darkest of darks. This was a time of great poverty in Lorna’s life and her childhood home was not wired with electricity. To keep warm, the family would sleep together in a double bed, cuddled close. Lorna would habitually fall asleep to the sounds of her father turning the clunky dial on his battery-operated portable radio, eternally on the hunt for country music. 

It wasn’t long before Lorna’s youthful voice would chime into kitchens across the North. Lorna and her late husband were contributors to the Northern Broadcast Sessions, and even recorded an all-Inuktitut children’s album, Just for Kids (1981). 

Charlie Panigoniak’s idol was Charlie Adams, and the two Charlies respectively looked up to their good friend William. They were always coming to him for advice as their popularity continued to grow. Panigoniak called Tagoona up every evening, right up until he passed away. 

“Charlie had me on his speed dial, even towards the end when he suffered from Parkinson’s. I remember I would close my eyes and try to understand what he was saying. He had dreams to do one last tour of the North.”

Tagoona fondly remembers the effortless humour Panigoniak brought to every performance. Back in the 1980s the two friends travelled to St. Johns to perform at the Festival by the Sea. Not many Newfoundlanders knew who Panigoniak was, but he had the primetime stage to grab their attention. 

“It didn’t really matter [that] he was unknown,” Tagoona says. “Panigoniak had this gift of pulling people in. He used his broken English as a tool to connect and make the whole audience laugh." 

Panigoniak started his career trying to sing in English even though his English wasn’t all that strong. Once he decided to sing in Inuktitut, he never looked back. Lorna vividly remembers the game he would often play during performances. Panigoniak would invite non-Inuit up on the stage to sing his Inuktitut lyrics with him. His wit made it fun, but the idea was to give the audience a little perspective, by giving them an opportunity to try to keep up singing along in a language other than their own.

Then there was Charlie Adams, a man who spoke perfect English, a result of his time at residential school in Churchill, when speaking Inuktitut was a punishable offense. It was natural for him to sing in English.

But the arrival of the 1970s brought a new dawn. 

“That was a time of revitalization for Inuit, a time when we were beginning to talk land claims,” Tagoona remembers. 

Musicians like Adams began to sing for the first time in their mother tongue, “and at that very point is when our people’s music really began to bloom.”

He continues: “Charlie Adams had to be one of the greatest writers that we’ve ever had! His stories were inadvertently political. They talked about the daily life in the North. He had a gift with words. He ended up refusing to sing in English, although he spoke it very well. It was a quiet, yet mighty, political stance.”

And those lyrics left a mark. A little boy growing up in Kuujjuaq, Nunavik, QC, was deeply shaped by Adam’s recordings. Etua Snowball grew up during a time of transformation in the North, and his identity was continually molded by a patchwork of southern and northern influences. Snowball loved music and was blown away by the masters, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Elvis Presley and of course, Charlie Adams. His father had tourism camps around Tunulik on the coast of Kangiqsualujjuaq, Nunavik, QC, famously known as the Tunulik fishing and hunting camps. Between long hours of hard work helping his family, he would listen to music from around the world brought in by tourists. But back in Kuujjuaq, his grandmother’s shortwave radio blew him away with recordings from the Northern Sessions. He quickly came to realize that professional quality Inuit music on the radio was a means of recognition for Inuit and deserved a place in music history, right next to Presley, Van Halen and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Snowball is a man that recognizes his ever-changing surroundings and the adaptability of Inuit. The history and the survival of his people have given him strength and he translates that strength into his music.

His sentiments are shared among the new generation of artists. The late Kelly Fraser, who listened to Charlie Adams’s music all her life, spoke of his impact on her in an interview with the IAQ at the end of 2017:

“I remember learning to sing his song ‘Quviasupunga (I’m Happy)’ when I was just three years old. It was my father’s favourite song, and after he passed away I translated it from Inuktut into English, so my family could understand it. . . . When I was a child, I saw Charlie perform . . . and he was amazing! I even got to meet him afterwards, and I still have a picture of him and me. As I grew up, I was deeply immersed in his music and was moved by the sincere and humble stories he told in his songs. He was a wonderful storyteller, and I have so much respect for him. . . . He inspired me to be the Inuit singer that I am today.”


Charlie Panigoniak 
Eskimo Singer/Composer (1975) Vinyl 45

Many of the Inuktitut favourites by artists featured in the Northern Sessions still play at festivals today. You will often hear the humorous lyrics of Panigoniak or the everlasting messages from Adams at the Alianait Festival in Iqaluit, NU. 

Salluit, Nunavik, QC musician Elisapie Isaac has covered Adams’s “Asuguuq.” In a June 2020 Facebook post, she wrote that she believed the song would resonate with her listeners through its timeless lyrics and the reality that Inuit still face barriers to basic human rights. 

Tagoona admires the drive and boldness of contemporary musicians like Elisapie: “The new generation, they are just so good. They are using new techniques with our traditional ways. They are taking it to new levels that we never thought could happen, but using our traditional beginnings of throat singing. We are so proud of them. We used guitars because our traditional ways were denounced. We wouldn’t dare try.”

The entire series of the CBC Northern Sessions introduced quality melodic Inuktut stories to the world, and more importantly, to Inuit communities by radio. They may lack traditional drums and throat songs, but they document modern Inuit life as well as history through their lyrics. Without the recordings, these stories would be buried.

“We were from an era where the government’s role was to destroy us," says Tagoona. "Destroy our culture, destroy our language, no to shamanism, no to throat singing. So when CBC said, ‘We will record you with a professional musician,’ of course we said yes to having a platform. The Charlies are gone now but their music is still out there and very visible on the radio. You hear the music being played as if it’s been recorded yesterday.”

Back in Kangiqliniq, Lorna gets through her days deeply missing her sweetheart Charlie. She misses the days of live performances and dreams of performing live once more. Until then, Lorna stands in her kitchen, humming along as CBC Kivalliq gifts her with Charlie’s melodies. She gets lost in memories of him only for a brief moment, interrupted by the scampering footsteps of her grandchildren, bolting around the corner to turn that radio up full blast.

[1] All quotes from William Tagoona, interview with Corinne Dunphy, May 2022.

Suggested Reads

Related Artists