Inuit Art Quarterly

Moderated by Tiffany Ayalik, Conversati­ons:


Music Within Inuit Cultures and Languages brought together circumpola­r Indigenous artists James Dommek Jr., Byron Nicholai and Julia Ogina on September 15, 2021. The resulting discussion was an intimate roundtable talk about the past, present and future of Inuit music, a portion of which is captured below:

Tiffany Ayalik: I'd love for you all to share a bit about your process when you are creating new music, where that impulse comes from, how you work with traditiona­l sounds and styles to create new music.

Tif fany Ayalik is from Yellowknif­e, NT, and is Inuit from the Kugluk tuk region. An actor, film producer and composer, Ayalik is a Juno Award–winning per former who of ten collaborat­es with sister, Inuksuk Mackay, in their katajjaq (Inuit throat singing) band, PIQSIQ.

James Dommek Jr.: I think our people are highly innovative. We take what we have available and we make it work for what we need. I think that our ancestors would want us to learn all the old songs as much as we can, but they would also want us to write [and] to try to add to the cannon. At one point [their songs] were new and exciting and fresh. I think they would want us to keep it going.

James Dommek Jr. is an Alaska Native musician and audio producer. He has played drums with Alaskan bands The Whipsaws, Pamyua, Meg Mackey Band, Medium Build and Tim Easton as well as Quinn Christophe­rson. He is a member of the Iñupiaq tribe from the Kotzebue area and the great-grandson of one of the last Iñupiaq stor y-tellers, Palangun.

Byron Nicholai: I think it was just a few years ago [that] I read a study done by University of Alaska Fairbanks where they predicted that a lot of Alaska Native languages would be lost by the year 2100. That's about 79 years away, which could be just a lifetime. I try to create songs to keep the youth of today engaged in listening to traditiona­l language. It's important to keep the traditions but as James said, we also have to adapt. A question that I asked myself when I started was, “Would our ancestors do this, if they had the same equipment?” I think they would want us to keep the culture alive—the traditiona­l life—but I think they would also want us to adapt.

Byron Nicholai is a Yup’ik singer, dancer and musician, born and raised in Toksook Bay, Alaska. His work is inspired by his Indigenous heritage. Nicholai has per formed across the United States and the Arctic and also regularly per forms with the Toksook Bay Traditiona­l Dancers, who taught him to sing and drum.

Julia Ogina: I begin with what I know and build on it. Traditiona­lly, people who loved to sing would create their own song, [of ten creating them] as young as possible. And I was asked a few times by Elders if I had created my own song. I did not know how to create the song, I did not know or understand the terms used in traditiona­l songs. . . As I strived to learn, that ’s when I star ted to understand how ver y specific these characteri­stic terms are. Learning to create songs was much deeper for me. I'm creating terms [now], the way I think terms were created. You need to be experiment­al with your language, be innovative with your language, and be adaptive. We have to evolve. Our language was always evolving...

Julia Ogina has made her home in Iqaluktuut­tiaq (Cambridge Bay), NU, for the past twenty-one years where she has enjoyed learning to lead and sing songs with community members. Ogina uses song to learn more about the lives of her ancestors, their strength and resilience, a foundation she builds on in her journey as a strong Inuinnait.

To hear more from this discussion and others like it, visit inuitartfo­­ons

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