Inuit Culture


Throat-singing is a form of music created in the throat and mouth. The sounds are imitations of natural sounds, the wind the sound of the sea, and animal sounds. Its history is bound up in life in close contact with the land.

Throat songs can tell a story, but do so without many recognizable words, playing mostly on the emotions. The singers may precede a song with a short summary of what it represents, then launching into the rhythmic sounds of the land.

Once discouraged by priests in many places across the North, throat-singing has increased dramatically in popularity in the last twenty years, and today there are many women (and a few men) who do this as a form of entertainment or in local ceremonies. There are several pairs of singers who have made CDs or who throat-sing professionally. Two girls from the Kivalliq Region, Inukshuk Aksalnik, from Rankin Inlet, and Pauline Pemik, from Arviat, have performed with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, and in other large venues. According to Evie Mark of Nunavik, “Throat-singing is such a strong tradition that it probably didn’t want to die. So, I think it is coming back to us. We are not going back to it. I don’t think it ever left us, I think we left it. And since it’s so unique, so strong, it never died.” From an article on Inuit throat-singing on a musical traditions website,

Today, many girls still have opportunities to learn throatsinging, either from grandmothers or mothers or as a part of a cultural program such as Makkuktut Sangiktilirput.

The youth in the Makkuktut Sangiktilirput program have opportunities to learn throatsinging and then to perform at community events and at events outside the community. The girls’ costumes are usually made by their mothers. In the old days, these would have been made of caribou skin, but it is too heavy and hot for performing under light Two throatsingers, Jenna-Lee Kasadluak and Sharon Makkigak, travelled to Brandon, Manitoba to perform at the Rural Forum 2004, and have been invited back to perform again.

Here’s a video of Jenna-Lee Kasadluak and Sharon Makkigak throatsinging.
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Windows Media : 56K | High Speed

History of throat-singing

In the old days before the coming of other cultures to the Arctic, Inuit entertained themselves in many ways. These included athletic games, wrestling matches, word games, games of chance, drum dancing, and song. Everyone was close to the land and their lives were controlled by the wind and the weather, the condition of the snow and the sea ice, and the movements of the animals that provided their livelihood. It is natural to expect that the natural world would be vividly reflected in their music.

Throat-singing likely had its origin in the times while the hunters were away, and the women left in camp, sewing, looking after the children, and the preparation of food. The evenings were long, and the women created their own songs, usually done with a song partner.

Imagine the interior of an iglu, lit only by the light of the soapstone lamp (qulliq), the sleeping bench covered with caribou skin sleeping robes, children playing or sleeping, and a few women sitting and talking, some working on clothing. Two women stand up, clasp arms, and begin a wordless song. One carries the melody, and the other harmonizes or provides counterpoint. One can hear the wind in the song, the “huff-huff-huff” of the breath of a dogteam on the trail, sometimes the wash of the waves of lake or sea, or the howl of a wolf. All is done in the throat, each watching the other and coordinating her efforts with those of her partner. Throatsinging takes incredible effort and concentration, and people are able to do it for short periods only. The song proceeds, until both singers are out of breath, and dissolve into giggles.

Originally, the lips of the two women were almost touching, and each used the other’s mouth cavity as a kind of resonating chamber. Today, most throatsinging pairs stand erect, holding each other’s arms but not as close as in the past. They may make some small rhythmic dance-like movements while singing, sort of swaying back and forth. The singers create sounds on both inhalation and exhalation, and sometimes develop a breathing technique comparable to the circular breathing technique used by players of wind instruments. This adds to the stamina of the singers.

Although this was mostly something done by women, young girls and even small boys tried it out, playing at throatsinging. When the hunters returned and the small encampment echoed with the sounds of laughter and activity, people would gather for entertainment, telling stories of the hunt, drumdancing and singing the story songs, and playing games. Throatsinging was an important part of these celebrations.