While the connection between Inuit throat singing and the natural history of the Arctic may seem a little obscure at first, it is a story of synergy, opportunity and just plain fun.
During our Extraordinary Arctic Festival in April 2013, the Canadian Museum of Nature partnered with the Ottawa Inuit Children’s Centre. A variety of local Inuit singers, drum-dancers and Inuktitut language teachers from the centre presented aspects of Inuit culture to museum visitors.
The Inuit Youth Performers led by Lynda Brown participated in the festival. In addition to demonstrating the unique Inuit performing arts, Lynda explained a little of the history, tradition and playfulness of throat singing.
Throat songs are usually done by pairs of singers. Some songs are lullabies, some imitate sounds in nature, and some are a game where the winner is the last person to laugh.
Throat singing was traditionally done by women while men were hunting. Today, both men and women throat sing and often weave throat-singing techniques into contemporary Arctic music.
As part of the performance, Lynda encouraged the audience to try throat singing. She taught us how to sing in a “monster voice”. The youth performers then helped us try to throat sing as a group. We sang, we laughed and we also learned about Inuit culture and traditions that are so closely linked to the Arctic landscape and wildlife.
Soon after that festival, the museum had an opportunity to partner with Science North to create Arctic Voices, an exhibition about climate change in the Arctic. We were keen to share our expertise in Arctic natural history and showcase our extensive collection of Arctic plants and wildlife.
It was also important to make sure that the exhibition was relevant to visitors who have never been to this remote and largely inaccessible part of the world. As such, the exhibition development team wanted to know what we had learned during our Arctic Festival. What activities helped create unique and memorable experiences for our visitors? Not surprisingly, the throat-singing performance with the Inuit Youth Performers came to mind. Science North had experience programming interactive exhibition components with a record-and-play-back technique; they suggested trying to create a karaoke-type kiosk.
When we proposed this to Lynda, she was immediately on board and full of ideas. She enlisted the equally enthusiastic participation of her singing partner, Heidi Metcalfe-Langille.
During a day of filming in the Mammal Gallery at the museum, Lynda and Heidi demonstrated a number of traditional throat songs with great skill, comfort, humour and ease.
Then we tried filming the interactive component. We stumbled, filmed several takes, and were not exactly sure how or if it would work. Truthfully, I felt like I held my breath until Science North’s audio-visual magician Mike Palumbo showed us the final result. The throat-singing kiosk works and is almost as fun as singing with Lynda and Heidi in person!
Try it out and tell us what you think!
The exhibition Arctic Voices is on at the museum until May 3, 2015.