Music by VICE

Aakuluk Music Is Raising Up Voices in the North

The record label sees an opportunity to build an infrastructure that musicians in southern Ontario would take for granted.

by Luke Ottenhof
Jun 20 2017, 2:42pm

Photo by Lauren Troutman

Andrew Morrison has just spent his Monday with his bandmate and wife, musician Nancy Mike, teaching an Inuktitut language workshop at the middle school in Iqaluit, Nunavut. He calls me shortly after from his home. "We thought it was going to be one class, but it turned out to be the whole school," he laughs. He's jovial and energetic, and it's -10 degrees celsius in Iqaluit.

Morrison, along with Mike and Steve Rigby, their bandmate in Iqaluit folk band The Jerry Cans founded Nunavut's first record label in late 2016—they called it Aakuluk Music. The word aakuluk (pronounced "a-coo-look") is a "term of endearment," Mike explained to CBC's Andrea Warner last year. "It's not necessarily 'I love you,' but it's something that you say to your children, your parents, your friends." The label was born with an explicit mission statement: to record, market and distribute music sung in Inuktitut and originating from Inuit traditions, building hope through music and community, and preserving the territory's distinct culture. They've put it in blunt terms on their website: "Iqaluit is a place rich in musical culture and talent, but bereft of music business infrastructure."

The Jerry Cans' experience touring overseas highlights the necessity for an apparatus like Aakuluk Music. They just returned from Australia, where Morrison says hundreds sang along in Inuktitut, despite not knowing the language. "To me it's just about creating those access points," he says. "Nancy is Inuk, and I'm not indigenous. I'm a white dude, so I try and talk about how non-indigenous people have a really important role in learning about these histories and being uncomfortable, and being challenged to deal with all of these things."

Aakuluk Music is working to create such access points in an Arctic territory that's geographically and technologically isolated. Not only do they contend with harsh, long winters inconceivable to the likes of most Canadians, but they don't get to stay in and watch Netflix on nasty days; Morrison tells me they can't even stream their own music due to poor internet connections. The gaps are tangible, measurable remnants of colonization, whether or not Canadians want to admit it. "That part of colonization separates people," Morrison remarks. "It doesn't give access between communities."

With Aakuluk, Morrison sees a shot to build the kind of infrastructure that musicians in southern Ontario would take for granted. Through The Jerry Cans, the label has a head start on networking, but there's a long way to go. "It's not just a record label in terms of releasing music," Morrison explains. "We're trying to create industry to share Nunavut music; we're responding to what the needs are up here." He chuckles explaining that Nunavut doesn't have an established recording studio, instead boasting a handful of home studios. He and The Jerry Cans recorded their first album "on people's coffee breaks with the shittiest mics in somebody's living room." He recalls the sessions in detail: "There's be blizzards blowing, walls would be shaking, and you can hear that on the recording," he laughs. For Morrison, it was "totally DIY, northern style," tethering microphones to stands with seal skin ropes and soundproofing rooms with caribou skin.

He relates these details fondly and benevolently; after all, that resourcefulness and resilience is a point of pride that not many can lay claim to. But it's important not to romanticize, either; these are necessities, not some idealized, authentic way of creating. They're just adapting to their realities. "Flying to Toronto costs us $1800 each," Morrison sighs. "There's this list of challenges that bands in southern Canada just don't have to face. We really do need to support each other, because we're up against some challenging things."

Recording facilities and travel costs are just the tip of the iceberg; when I ask about grants like those provided by FACTOR and Canada Council for the Arts, Morrison notes there are some blind spots that simply don't make them attainable for artists in Nunavut. "They're scratching their heads wondering why there are never any applications from Nunavut. Part of our job is to be like, 'well, we can't upload a music video because our internet sucks that much,'" Morrison explains tiredly. "For some applications, you need to have a certain threshold of streaming on Spotify, but nobody in Nunavut uses Spotify because the internet is so challenging." Through Aakuluk, Morris hopes to illuminate and address the context of being a musician in Nunavut to funding agencies. "There are certain challenges that are very unique to the geography of [Nunavut]," he states plainly.

Morrison hopes that Aakuluk can challenge the Anglo-supremacist nature of Canadian music. Ontario labels have repeatedly suggested to The Jerry Cans that if they were to give up singing in Inuktitut and instead sing in English, they'd be a hit. Morrison shrugs. "With Jerry Cans, we've been trying to push Inuktitut music and kind of challenge audiences a little bit." He pauses for a beat before doubling back, annoyed: "It's not even that challenging. Lots of people don't care if it's in English or not, but the industry is very tentative because they don't see the money. They don't see it as immediately marketable." The Jerry Cans have remained unshaken, not least of all because they know if they cave to the ever-present pressures to sing in English, it sends a message to other musicians in Nunavut.

"It's so important for young people to see Inuktitut-singing musicians all over the world. There's been a history of upholding English dominance in the industry, and that's something being challenged right now. That's what we want to do with Aakuluk Music."

It all ties back to Aakuluk's central thesis: elevating Inuktitut music and musicians in Nunavut, and they're already doing just that. Riit, a musician and singer from Pangnirtung (a hamlet of about 1600 people), is signed to Aakuluk, and just debuted her latest single, "Imiqtaq," on CBC Radio 2. The debut was a major victory for Aakuluk, Riit, and the whole territory; it's an experience the young musician never expected to have. "Growing up in a really small town in an isolated place, I never thought I would be making music all in Inuktitut," she says. "It's so easy to feel like you won't be noticed when you're living in such a small place. I'm very grateful for Aakuluk Music."

Morrison echoes the excitement, perhaps even louder. "We got some Inuktitut on national radio!" he roars, an ear-to-ear smile practically audible. "It makes people smile all across the territory. We know that it benefits every artist here to be getting radio play nationally." Those successes produce the kind of gratifying excitement that led to Aakuluk's creation; for Morrison, it's a tangible validation of their work. "It's exhausting, but we're so happy to do what we're doing."

In September, Iqaluit will host the first ever Nunavut Music Summit, an opportunity to bring industry members to Nunavut to work within the community to network and build the territory's arts scene. From publicists, to managers, to bookers, to producers, to artists, Morrison wants to bring people from all corners of the Canadian music industry to Iqaluit to "brainstorm amongst us." He's excited and optimistic. He's also nervous. "Everything we do is always the first thing," he admits. "Everytime [we introduce ourselves], we say, 'we're coming to you with very little experience, but we're not dumb, and we've very passionate about what we're doing.' It's not easy. We're learning things every day."

Artists like Riit, Morrison, and the Jerry Cans are fighting for recognition for Inuk musicians that shouldn't have to be fought for; the fight is symptomatic of the ever-present oppressive system of colonization, and the erasure of Inuit and indigenous voices, narratives, and music from Canadian culture. Riit says she'll often speak for over an hour with curious show-goers following a performance with throat singing and Inuktitut, explaining her work. "It gets exhausting at times," she sighs. "Sometimes I just think to myself, 'How are these people from Canada, and don't know all about this stuff?'" She doesn't begrudge the experience though. "Most times I'm just super happy and thankful that I get to educate people on my people and culture," she says brightly.

Riit hasn't yet faced the pressure to Anglicize (read: white-wash) her music yet, like Morrison and The Jerry Cans have. "Inuktitut is my mother tongue," she asserts, unfazed. "I didn't learn how to speak English until I was six or seven." It's a matter of identity and assertion, but also of role-modeling; much like Aakuluk encourages and support Riit, she recognizes that now she's an example for other Inuk musicians in Nunavut. "I'm very proud all of my sounds [are] in Inuktitut," she says. "For the younger people in Nunavut, I want to be a role model in that way: 'You can speak your language.'"

Morrison knows that if he and The Jerry Cans were to move south and sing in English, they'd have the sort of conventional, popular form of success that artists in southern Canada enjoy. His tone darkens, gets more serious. "Sometimes it's hard when you play a shitty show, or you wonder why you're not getting the right exposure of you're not getting picked up by the radio," he deadpans. "The pressure to sing in English always hangs over our head. We know that if you play that game, the game gets a little bit easier." But he, Riit, Mike, Rigby, The Jerry Cans, and artists across Nunavut know they have a lot that musicians in Toronto or Montreal might never have: their story, their culture, their community, their geography (Morrison notes that the artists they work with live in the most unique places in Canada). "Our community is really important to our music and the way we do things here," Morrison says, the warm, friendly inflection returned to his voice. "It's so collaborative and people are so willing to help each other out.

"Everybody just wants to help the other artists bring up their ability to share their story. For a long time, a lot of these stories have been silenced. Those times are changing, so we're just part of a process to help people share these stories. It's just one piece of a larger puzzle that's happening in Canada."

The impact and message of Aakuluk is immediate, important and impassioned, perhaps no more vividly than on Riit's "Imiqtaq." Morrison and Mike's daughter, and Riit's niece, Viivi, sings the song's chorus to begin and end the song, bringing it full circle. Morrison recorded the three-year old singing the traditional Inuktitut children's tune, and now her voice has been heard across Canada. Riit says simply, "I was singing it to Viivi, and eventually she started singing it, too."

Luke Ottenhof is a writer living in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.

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