Performers for the 2018 National Folk Festival


photo courtesy of artist

photo courtesy of artist

Inuit throat singing

Ottawa, Ontario

Kathy Kettler and Kendra Tagoona are Nukariik, a duo that carries on the rarely heard Inuit throat-singing tradition and other age-old forms of Inuit entertainment such as drum dancing and a ja ja songs. A vocal game used to amuse children and women while men were out hunting, Inuit throat singing is an art practiced almost exclusively by women. Two singers stand or crouch facing each other and engage in a bit of friendly competition as one singer takes the lead and the other follows. During the vocal exchange, the voiced sounds and breath of each singer combine to form rhythmic melodies that imitate sounds from nature such as a mosquito or a river. The result is mesmerizing, as the singers playfully compete to see who will stop or laugh first. 


Born in Kangiqsualujjuaq, Nunavik, Canada, Kathy embraced her heritage by learning throat singing and drum dancing from friends and elders. While learning, Kathy practiced her breathing walking around town, timing her breath to each step she took to acquire the skill of breathing continuously without getting light-headed. After mastering breath control and producing sounds with the throat, Kathy took the next traditional step in learning throat singing—practicing with a partner. Skilled singers such as Nukariik blend and synchronize their voices so perfectly that it becomes difficult to distinguish between them.  


In 2000, Kathy formed Nukariik, the Inuit word for “sisters,” with her sister, Karin. When work commitments caused Karin to relocate to northern Canada, making it harder for the sisters to perform, Kathy decided to continue the duo with her longtime collaborator, Kendra, to whom she taught this startling vocal tradition over 20 years ago. They have been performing together regularly for nearly a decade.  


In addition to throat singing, the duo performs a ja ja songs, often about personal experiences, accompanied by a small drum. The drum figured heavily into Inuit feasts and other social gatherings, and special events such as the Return of the Sun.  


Reflecting upon the meaning of throat singing in their lives, Kathy says, “We have been able to deepen our Inuit identity as this style is specific to Inuit and it is an honor to have such a thing in our culture.” Apart from sharing their heritage with audiences through stage presentations, both singers take pride in imparting their knowledge and skill to children, and bringing young and old together in multigenerational gatherings that celebrate and strengthen Inuit culture.