That Good Ol’ Fashioned Seal-Clubbin’ Sound

April 20, 2014 § Leave a comment

For anyone who thinks of drum dances and ayaya songs when they envision Nunavut music, meet the Jerry Cans. The rip-roaring band of Iqaluit young folks, most of them white, have developed a reputation for bringing Nunavut’s grandmothers and grandfathers to their feet, stomping along to their “ol’-fashion seal-clubbin’ songs” And sometimes – no joke – crying for joy, because they’re doing it in the language they grew up listening to: Inuktitut.

When the Jerry Cans held the release party for their first album, Nunavuttitut (Nunavut Style) in January, the crowds braved minus 40 degree temperatures and fresh snow fall to pack Iqaluit’s legion hall to capacity. Plenty of youth arrived to sing along to a set of original and cover songs – including a rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” with throat-singing – but singer Andrew Morrison also remembers, “There were so many elders that somebody asked for an elder’s square dance, just for them, so they wouldn’t get knocked around. After that, the elder’s dance had to happen, no choice.”

That, more than anything, is why the Jerry Cans are getting attention. They appeal not just to teens but to old ladies in sealskin kamiit, and play not just rock and ska but beloved Nunavut fiddle-and-accordion classics that have seldom been recorded. And it all happens  in a revved up and mongrel Iqaluit style that some say is leading a revival in Northern music.

The Jerry Cans’ mash-up of musical influences flows from their roots. Nancy Mike, the accordionist and only Inuk in the band, was born and raised in Pangnirtung, a hub for Inuktitut folk music, where for years the now-defunct Pangnirtung Music Festival was an excuse for families from all over Baffin Island to get together and make music.

With the exception of violinist Gina Burgess, who moved from Halifax last year to join the band, the rest of the Jerry Cans – Morrison, bassist Brendan Doherty and drummer Steve Rigby – are from Nunavut’s fast-changing capital, where people from all over the Arctic and the world collide. “In Iqaluit, we’ve got such a unique music scene,” says Morrison. “It’s such a small community, [so] everybody just plays with everybody else, and we all come from different musical backgrounds.”

Morrison, Doherty and Rigby met back in elementary school, when Iqaluit was still a part of the Northwest Territories. They grew up listening to Nunavut rock bands, along with more traditional performances at community cultural events and Inuktitut square dances. They picked up instruments and experimented with hard-rock and metal before heading south to attend university. When they returned, Nunavut was a new stand-alone territory and Iqaluit was well on its way to becoming a full-fledged, cosmopolitan city.

The boom in their hometown was great for musical inspiration – Nunavuttitut’s strong reggae tones come, in part, from jamming with ex-pat Jamaican penny-whistlers and flautists in Iqaluit – but it had a troubling side: English was rapidly taking over. Morrison resisted the change. “It’s empowering for young people to be able to be proud, to sing along in their own language,” he says. And while most of the members are capable in Inuktitut, Morrison now has an incentive to become even more fluent. Last summer, he asked Mike’s father for permission to marry her. He said yes, on one condition: “that I learn how to speak.”

He’s learning in the catchiest possible way. “Mamaqtuq” – meaning “delicious” –  an original song about seal-meat stew, was on heavy rotation on CBC radio last summer, and when the band played Yellowknife’s Folk on the Rocks festival in July, it had the crowd pumping a collective fist and singing along in Inuktitut like it was their native language, too.

But while Morrison says it’s “definitely a political choice” to sing in Inuktitut, “most of all, we have to have fun about it. Because often, I think sometimes the Nunavut represented in newspapers from the south is not a fun place, and that’s far from the truth. If you’ve been up here, you know that you cry harder up North, and you laugh harder up here, than anywhere I’ve ever been in the world. Or you go crazy.”

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