Throat singer and accordionist, Nancy, is the only Indigenous member of the Jerry Cans, a band that combines traditional Inuit throat singing with folk and country music.
Nancy Mike grew up 50 minutes north from Iqaluit in a place called Pangniqtuuq (Pangnirtung), where she often spent time out on the land, either caribou hunting, berry picking, or simply just living a life on the tundra. There her and her siblings (at the time it was 3 brothers and 3 sisters) found all sorts of things to do, be it fishing, playing tag, hide and seek or finding insects.
“My all-time favourite thing to do was to look up to the sky and watch the stars and northern lights out on the land, where it was more likely to be dark and stars were much more visible,” she said.
“Growing up my father was our food provider and my mom worked within the health field making sure our family was financially stable, and every winter my dad made money as a fisherman, fishing for turbot fish, which up to today have a good market price.”
Despite coming from a unique the traditional remote town of Pangniqtuuq, like any other child, Nancy found a way to keep herself entertained.
“If I wasn’t in school, I was either visiting with friends, watching WWF wrestling matches on TV, pretending to be the spice girls, or playing dolls. Most summers I adopted a pet that my father had brought home after being out hunting and it was usually a baby seagull or a duckling, occasionally a snow bunting. Outdoors is where I spent my days mostly as a child just because that’s where the fun was.”
Indigenous Musical Calling
Music was always Nancy’s calling, but it wasn’t until later in life that she discovered it.
“When I was about 9-years-old, my best friend and I did everything together, some days her father picked up the button accordion and played it and my friend and I took turns learning a song by ear. I never went to music school because it was not an option in Pangniqtuuq, we were lucky to have someone teach us at home.”
"People currently love our musical stories because the true history of Canada is finally coming out.”
After that Nancy wasn’t involved in music again, other than enjoying listening to musicians that came from different communities around the arctic, who came to perform at the Pang Music Festival every summer.
It wasn’t until one summer, when a throat singing duo came to her town to do throat singing workshops.
“I was able to take part in the workshops and since then, I have been throat singing, which then led me to join the band The Jerry Cans as an accordionist and throat singer. I’ve enjoyed traveling as a band since 2011.”
Listening to the fusion of music, culture and history, Nancy says there was a deep importance to utilise traditional instruments in their songs.
“Inuit history is very interesting to me - a small part of the history is the colonisation by the Scottish whalers back in the 1800’s,” she said
“Pangniqtuuq was one of the locations that Bowhead whaling happened at back then, so we had many women learn to play the accordion in those days, while the men were out hunting.
This then lead to the younger generation being taught how to play and still to this day, these old -traditional square dance tunes are being taught to people younger than me.”
Nancy says what’s fascinating, is that traditional instruments have facilitated cultural knowledge.
“We’re able to learn more and more about the Inuit history through story telling whenever we travel to communities in the north and I think that is one reason why I love playing traditional instruments,” she said.
“It makes me feel like I can connect to the joys and struggles Inuit went through during colonisation.”
Inuktitut is the language of Inuit, “Inuk” is one person or human, and “-titut” means to do something of that thing or person, thus Inuktitut means to do something the Inuit way and Inuktitut is Nancy’s mother tongue.
It wasn’t until grade 7 where Nancy learnt how to speak English fluently and Inuktitut being her first language was where she found she could express feelings best, through her own language.
Nancy says she finds song writing in Inuktitut comes naturally.
“The number one reason I think it’s important to sing in Inuktitut is to make sure other Inuit people hear what we have to say in order to empower them… Especially as social issues such as poverty, high suicide rates, mental health issues, intergenerational trauma are all far too common,” she said.
“It is very important for me to tell our stories through music, so that our people listen and be educated of what is going on in our society, as well as to hear how important it is for us to stand tall and empower each other through culture.”
Music with Meaning
It’s not just the Inuit people that seem to be enjoying culturally inspired music.
“People love to hear our stories, not sure if it’s because they experience similar events or just because the stories are coming from first hand northerners. Audiences tend to admit that they have only ever heard of misconception stories of what it’s like to live in the arctic,” she said.
“I don’t want to say that our music is necessarily traditional, in fact I think it’s ‘modern’ in the perspective of Inuit eyes, it is a mix of traditional music that has been passed down from each generation and modern music that solely reflects what it is like to live in the north, our environment, contemporary issues, and the many celebrations that are happening in Nunavut.”
Nancy says her music is more than just noise… it’s a tool of empowerment.
"People currently love these stories because the true history of Canada is finally coming out,” she said.
“People want to heal, people want to know their identity, people want to move forward without continuing to pass on trauma to the next generation, because we all want to live as healthy humans. We need to make sure we empower each other.”
“I hope that when people hear our music, they question their own history and the issues they have because they need to learn from it.”
When you listen to the unique sounds of wolves howling, Inuit throat singing, accordions, violins and drums it is the perfect mixture of music and language. But Nancy says that people need to take away more than just the mesmerising music.
“I hope that when people hear our music, they question their own history and the issues they have because they need to learn from it,” she said.
“I hope people understand that wherever you may be, there is a history of that place, history that includes non-Indigenous people and Indigenous people, so use this as a tool to be culturally aware.”