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Indigenous Breath: The Arts of Joik and Throat Sin...

Indigenous Breath: The Arts of Joik and Throat Singing

 

(Thank you to Dr. Heidi Senungetuk for help researching this topic.)

 

There is a prevailing attitude among the global musical community toward indigenous music: to treat it, even if with appreciation, as both local and exotic phenomena. The arts of joik (practiced by the Sami people of Nordic countries) and throat singing (practiced by Inuit communities in both in Canada/Alaska and Mongolia, among other areas) may be deeply enmeshed in their respective cultures, but with the advent of globalization comes a new understanding of the impact such art forms have on the wider music community.

Both of these arts are performances that involve human voice and breath, and test our conception of these features as instruments. Joiks (noun form) are acts where the singer reflects on or pays tribute to a particular being or landscape. The song is often deeply spiritual and/or personal in nature, for the joik is not about the subject in question but rather an attempt to invoke the very essence of the subject itself. There is no standard form; it acts as a way to honor a person, animal or place of significance.

It involves a breathy, sometimes mumbling style where the singer may chant, hum, or sing in any combination to create the desired effect or message. With the Christian conversion of Sami people, joik was suppressed for its ‘sinful’ pagan nature. Despite this, recent years have seen a revitalization of joik in two distinct styles: the traditional style (‘mumbling’) and a contemporary style sung primarily by Sami youth. One of the most notable joik artists is Wimme Saari, whose style blends the two, often with instruments, to create a vibrant and evocative performance. Joik as an art form draws out fundamental human sounds, like breathing, to their extremes, but constructs these sounds in such a way as to captivate audiences with rhythm and fluctuations in tone.

Throat singing involves interplay between two women; one sets a rhythmic pattern with her breath, the other responds in intervals to develop a performative dialogue. Traditionally, however, it was a game, not a display: the first to break rhythm and laugh lost, and the winner was the one who could withstand against the most people. For this reason, it does not fit into traditional western notions of a ‘music’ framework. Despite this, it represents one of the most intriguing and unique uses of the human body as a musical instrument. Throat singing, similarly repressed under colonial rule, has seen resurgence in recent years with Inuit communities hosting events and performances. The voices may reference sounds ranging from rivers to wind to even that of a sewing machine. Throat singing may not be what you expect to hear on the radio, but there is a strange beauty to the ways in which singers push the possibilities of breath to their most extreme (and often gruesome) limits. Above all else, it retains its nature as a fun game even during public performance.

Beverly Diamond explores the relationship between these traditional forms of music and the wider non-indigenous world in her article, terming this analysis “alliance studies”. She emphasizes the presence of ‘patron discourse’ (crediting Penny van Toorn): the expectations of and constraints placed upon indigenous art forms that ultimately limit their autonomy. To grossly oversimplify, it means that indigenous artistic expression is only as free as the box in which the dominant audience (in this case: mainstream music world) allows them to operate.

(above) Tanya Tagaq, Inuk throat singer who has cultivated a unique ‘solo’ form. [photo credit: pitchfork.com]

This refers to the ways in which non-Indigenous listeners expect Indigenous music to sound: for it to emphasize exotic, unusual methods or instruments. Such expectations undoubtedly fueled interest in throat singing, which saw a limited number of recordings processed through northern Canadian communities. These did, however, enable contemporary performers to study and learn the art form, thereby helping facilitate the rise of those such as Tanya Tagaq, perhaps the most famous Inuit singer today. Her collaboration with Icelandic pop-star Björk brings the art form to new audiences – with mixed response from the Inuit community. How does this change the nature of throat singing? What will it become in the future? What implications does this have for Inuit identity and musical indigeneity? I recommend Beverly Diamond’s article for further reading and considerations. Overall, joik and throat singing represent vibrant expressions of the human body. They may challenge conventional notions of music, but it is us who must challenge these conceptions of what we expect human bodies to sound like – we are much more than simply traditional notions of voice.