Saturday, February 16, 2013

Fashion show! Inuit throat singing, drumming...and square dancing

With the big regional trade show in town, Cambridge Bay has been bustling all week! There isn't a single vacancy, and there have been festivities every night. On the second night, there was a big event happening in the gymnasium, including a fashion show, so I decided to check it out. It wasn’t hard to figure out where everything was happening – it seemed like every car in town was parked at the elementary school.

 The first performance was dancers.  I thought, Man, I am curious to see what traditional Inuit dancing looks like.  Imagine my surprise when the dancers poured into the middle of the gym and began square dancing to country folk songs. Straight up square dancing, about ten dancers varying in age range from very little kids to older adults, weaving and bouncing to fiddle music, complete with Yee-haw's punctuating each line.

swing your partner round and round

When Scottish whalers first met Inuit people in the 1800s, there was a sort of cultural exchange that happened along with the usual material trade. The Inuit taught the whalers some important skills for surviving in the winter, and the whalers taught the Inuit some of their folk songs and the dancing that goes with it.  As a result of these friendly interactions,  stuff like Scottish folk music and square dancing have become an accepted part of Inuit traditions, and people seem to love it.

Then we were treated to performances by the Ikaluktutiak drummers, a group of talented young women who showed off their talents in singing, drumming, and dancing to short songs.  There was an adorable little girl who stole the show, doing every move perfectly, holding a drum almost the same size as her.  There was something truly haunting about the sound of women singing a capella, accompanied only by drums.  One song had beats of four, with each beat to represent the people of the Arctic: Canada, Greenland, Russia, and Alaska.  Another song involved a bird dance, with each lines punctuated by bird-like chirping sounds.  I was impressed by how many songs they knew by memory.

The drummers were followed by two cousins doing throat singing.  Have you ever heard Inuit throat singing? It is honestly one of the most amazing music I have ever heard.  Here is an example of what throat singing sounds like:

 The way that the performers explained it to us, throat singing is sort of a friendly competition held between two women, holding each other closely, with one woman leading and the other following, producing incredible rhythmic sounds from their throats until one of them can't keep up or the other breaks away laughing. Kind of like a staring contest, except throat singing requires remarkable talent and practice, compared to staring. The girls performed songs that imitated different aspects of nature, like the buzzing of mosquitos, or the barking of dogs, or the cawing of birds. The last song was my favourite. It was about a girl singing to her puppy, hoping he grows up to be the leader of his dog pack one day.

 After the two throat singers left the stage, I thought, how could they possibly follow up that act? The answer: A blind Inuk violinist. I am not making this up.

 I've seen Ashley hanging out at the library before. He's always there. The emcee led Ashley up the stage and helped him sit in his chair. Ashley then effortlessly tuned his violin on stage and launched into a fast-paced fiddling tune, the same kind of music that the square dancers had been dancing to earlier. He had the whole audience clapping along.

 Then he put his bow away and began strumming chords on it like a mandolin, humming along. Watch out, Andrew Bird, watch out. This self-taught blind Inuk violinist just might overshadow you.

 The final act was the fashion show, presented by the Nunavut Arts and Crafts Association. It wasn't the kind of fashion show you'd see on the runways of Milan, presenting the latest Gucci or whatever name I can drop to make myself seem like I know high fashion. This was a display of the latest fur/leather fashions made by the local designers of Nunavut, beautiful outfits skilfully interweaving modern fashion trends with traditional fur skills that would have made a fashionista weep with joy. It probably also would have made a PETA activist weep too, for different reasons. Especially when the fashion models concluded their presentations by flashing their T-shirts that read: "SEAL IS THE NEW BLACK." I approved.