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The Jerry Cans are Making Music for a Forgotten Culture

Making music so that their culture stays in the front of people's mind.
October 24, 2014, 7:58pm

There are many things that need to be explained to someone before they can properly appreciate a song by one of Iqaluit’s most popular bands, The Jerry Cans. First off, there’s the question of where and what Iqaluit is, as not many people know that it’s the capital of Nunavut. Then there’s the question of “what’s an Inuk?” as that’s the culture that mainly populates Nunavut, the area of the Canadian northwest that the Jerry Cans call home. There’s also a need for understanding what exactly Inuktitut is, as that’s the language employed by The Jerry Cans in their music—though that wasn’t always the case. To understand the history of The Jerry Cans is to understand the history of Nunavut as a whole, a place in Northern Canada that has been largely forgotten about when people think about the Canadian identity. It’s an isolated territory, the kind of place where you need to wait days for an import of the sorts of luxuries that you can go to the store and buy right now, like fruits and vegetables. It’s also a place whose population is largely transient, due to the fact that many of the non-native people call it home while temporarily working in the north.

With so many factors influencing the land, it would be easy for Nunavut to lack a singular identity from which music can spring from. But acts like Tanya Tagaq and The Jerry Cans are out to prove that that’s not the case. We spoke to Andrew Morrison of The Jerry Cans about what life is like in the North, why they have the most popular Legion in all of Canada, and what he wants the rest of the world to take away from The Jerry Cans music.

Noisey: How has Tanya Tagaq’s Polaris affected the mood of the music community up north?
Andrew Morrison: It’s been huge music news for the community of Nunavut. It’s a huge thing for Nunavut to see an Inuk on stage talking about these things and issues that are so close to our heart and our communities. To see somebody up there with such a prestigious audience and the whole world listening to them, and for her to talk about the issue of the missing and murdered indigenous women, not to mention the seals and our friends at PETA, I think it was a really major moment for Nunavut and its musicians.

How would you describe the Nunavut music scene?
It’s almost indescribable. It’s so small, but it’s also so diverse. Growing up, you’d have people in town temporarily from all over the place, so you never had any choice with regards to who you wanted to play with. You would be in a band with a metal drummer who plays Jamaican reggae, an elder songwriter, and a penny-whistle player. You get these really peculiar combinations of music but when I think about me playing music now, it’s a very diverse kind of style because that’s the scene up here. Everyone just plays together because its such a small group of musicians, but there’s a resurgence in Inuit music these days and lots of young people have been really proud to sing in their language, and that hasn’t been the case for a couple of years, so that’s something that’s really good.

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At what age did you get into the music scene, and could you describe what the scene was like when you joined?
Well, when we first moved here it was still called Frobisher Bay, before it even became Nunavut, and we were still part of part of Northwest Territories, so it was a very small music scene [laughs]. We were into all of these different music programs, learning the fiddle and all these different things, but the music scene here centred around one bar that everyone played at—the Legion. It’s actually the highest grossing Legion in all of Canada.

Everyone has a Legion membership?
Every 20 year old in town has a membership to the Legion—it’s something that is quite unique in Canada. So yeah, I got into the music scene at quite a young age I’ve been involved for a number of years but we grew up playing in a lot of cover bands, and we were always struggling with the idea of what we should be; the idea of this rock band and what it means to be in a rock band. We were very influenced by southern ideas of what that meant and which bands represented it, like the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and all those. And then, after a number of years, we started looking at the music scene here and Inuit music, and we’ve changed a lot because of that. Now we look around our community and look for inspiration, and that was a very big change for us, because that’s when we started taking off.

What would you say was the key that made you take that shift in your musical direction?
Well, I started to go hunting a lot more and that was a big moment, to kind of realize what growing up around those lands and hunting entailed, and I started writing to what I felt when I was hunting. A big part of hunting is waiting, so while I was waiting, I started thinking. I was thinking about music and being Inuk, and that identity was such a big part of it, I remember the first time I started to write my first Inuk music—and I’m a white guy learning Inuktitut so this a whole new experience for me.

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Could you just describe what Inuktitut is?
It’s actually an interesting word because Inuktitut is the common word for the language, but it also literally translates to, “the way that Inuits do things” or “the styles in which Inuits do things.” So, we’ve shifted our music and the language we communicate it thought in the last two years, but we’ve also shifted the idea of the music. We use to write songs about nonsense, but now we start write more about Northern issues and the things we see going on in our communities. It’s a language, but it’s also used to talk about the culture and lifestyle.

When you sing in Inuktitut do you notice a shift in the reaction you guys get from the crowd, versus when you sing in English?
Absolutely, it’s night and day. We were kind of just singing this generic music people wanted to hear, but when we tapped into the Inuktitut side of things it changed everything. When we started about two years ago there weren’t many people singing in Inuktitut, we weren’t seeing any Inuktitut in the rhythms, but once we started to do that it kind of exploded in town. Our shows would be packed and people just wanted to dance because they'd been missing it for years. Nunavut is this weird place because it has a lot of people moving and lots of transient people coming in getting jobs, and leaving, so there’s lots of people in the culture. But once you start to play the music, the people who call this place home remember how things use to be.

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Would you say that the transient people were receptive to the new way of singing?
Yeah I think so, I think it was nice for them because when we play our shows I'm always telling stories of going hunting and meeting my crazy late father in law, Nancy’s Dad—Nancy is the throat singer in our band. So a lot of our music and the stuff I write about my relationship with him, I would tell stories of our interactions: me, a white dude with this hardcore Inuk hunter who doesn’t speak English, and people got a kick out of that because it was this meeting of two worlds, the old and new.

Was this the first album you recorded in Inuk?
This is the second album recorded, but the last one wasn’t very professional. There are no recording studios in Nunavut, so we were recording in peoples basements, on coffee breaks in peoples workplace, all this different stuff. With this second album, we had a bit more time. We went out to a studio in Toronto to record it.

What kind of things do you want people in the south who hear your album to pick up and learn from it?
Well I think that’s why we’re so proud of Tanya Tagaq. It’s talking about the impact of animal rights activists on the lives of Inuks. We might think it’s becoming a cliché thing, but a lot of people here are full-time seal hunters and the actions made by the animal rights crews have simply decimated that business and has thrown a lot of families into poverty, so when Tanya is up onstage saying “FUCK PETA,” that was awesome. We want everyone to know how that legacy continues today, because a lot of families still live in poverty because of the actions of those altruistic animal rights activist. On top of that there is more we’d like to share with regards to what’s going on up here. There are lots of difficult social issues, like with the murdered aboriginal women, the extremely high suicide rates, the poverty. But there’s also positive stuff going on, like if you came up north to visit us, you’d come and we’d throw you an awesome party. So we don’t want to necessarily focus on just the negative stuff, but we also want to shed some light on the really positive and kind of celebratory moments up here. And that’s something that doesn’t always make it through to the mass media because its always easy to jump on the high suicide rates, or the kids sleeping outside, or the poverty stories, but it’s all much more difficult to get the idea into other people’s mind that there is lots to celebrate in the North and we still have strong vibrate Inuit culture that continues to shape young people and the language that is still very much relevant in the lives of young people.

What do you think that someone from the South who listens to your music and feels a very special connection to it can do to positively impact your culture?
Understanding is a really important thing. I think changing your understanding and the way you see talent, and the way you see Canadian music in general, is really important. I think the idea became in the music industry that there’s very narrow definition of what Canadian music is. And again I think that’s something that is happening now, and there’s a huge resurgence of Aboriginal music and indigenous music and talent that people don’t hear about. I think part of this aboriginal music resurgence is changing people’s understanding and thinking, even with the other stuff going on in popular culture, like the name changing of the Washington Redskins and the rise of A Tribe Called Red. Those things are very important, but it’s also bringing Aboriginal issues and relations to the forefront, and we’re talking about those relations and we’re changing our understanding about the history of Canada. I think that Southerners don’t have to do anything, but even rethinking what they think about Canadian music and rethinking what they think about Inuit culture.They think it’s dying off, but that’s not the case at all. There’s a very strong culture, theres a very strong language and we need to work and acknowledge and promote that.

Slava Pastuk would definitley, without question, eat some seal - @SlavaP