A Resounding Beat: Music in the Inuit World

Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum & Arctic Studies Center Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum & Arctic Studies Center

Exhibition: A Resounding Beat: Music in the Inuit World



Arctic Museum main galleries
Traditional and contemporary music is a vibrant part of Inuit society. Inuit visual artists often portray traditional drummers, singers, and dancers in their works, highlighting the ways such performances and songs are crucial links to the past. Contemporary musicians are reviving traditional music, performing pieces in their original forms. At the same time, they are incorporating elements of older musical styles into modern genres, creating unique contemporary sounds.

Music has always been an important part of life in Inuit communities. Parents sing to their babies, children sing while playing games, and people sing as they work. In the past, men, and sometimes women, composed songs to be sung at community gatherings while accompanied by drumming. These gatherings often included competitions between friendly rivals or song duels to air grievances and relieve tension. Before they converted to Christianity, hunters used a special vocabulary to sing to the animals they hunted, while shamans used a secret language as they drummed and sang to communicate with the spirit world.

Under the influence of Westerners, Inuit adopted and adapted new musical instruments and styles of music. In many places, Christian missionaries effectively banned most traditional music, although elders kept the memory of these forms alive, and in some communities there has been a revival of traditional singing, drumming, and dancing. Contemporary musicians also skillfully combine modern and traditional genres, and today people sing and play instruments in a variety of contexts from rock bands to church choirs.

Funded by the Russell and Janet Doubleday Endowment.

Selected Works

In the 1940s portable recorders that used fine stainless steel wire to capture sound became affordable. Donald and Miriam MacMillan purchased one to carry with them on the schooner Bowdoin. During the MacMillans’ 1947 expedition, Miriam used the wire recorder to collect songs and stories in a number of communities. Webster-Chicago Corporation, Webster Wire Recorder, Chicago, 1947. Metals. Gift of Miriam Look MacMillan.
Shamans used drumming to assist them as they transformed and traveled to communicate with the spirits. Sometimes shamans took on the forms of their helper spirits, and artists have portrayed them in many different guises. Some transformations, such as Bird Transformation, are powerful and frightening. Yassie Kakee, Bird Woman Drummer, Iqaluit, 2003. Antler. Robert and Judith Toll Collection.
Unidentified photographer, [Members of the Nain Brass Band], Nain, ca. 1960. Scan from 35mm slide. Gift of Dr. Edward K. Morse.
Paul Aaluk takes advantage of the natural curves of caribou antler to portray a joyful performer in Drum Dancer. Paul Aaluk, Drum Dancer, Gjoa Haven, 2001. Antler and stone. Robert and Judith Toll Collection.
Rene Okatsiak’s Throat Chanters kneel facing each other, their smiling babies snug in their amautit. On each woman’s back is a large face, possibly representing a spiritual association with their ancestors. Between them is a small snow house, a reminder of the sense of community such shared games can evoke. Rene Okatsiak, Throat Chanters, Arviat, 1997. Stone. Robert and Judith Toll Collection.
Donald Baxter MacMillan, Eskimo Girl Playing Accordion [Mary Napatchee], Baffin Island, 1921–22. Scan from silver gelatin print. Gift of Miriam and Donald MacMillan.